CLAY GEERDES INFO
Your Subtitle text
                                  Anderson Valley Advertiser  -  1997

ABOARD SHIP: 1956-57 by Clay Geerdes

 

I dropped out of the Electronics Technician’s Class A School in San Diego in early 1955 when I learned I would probably spend my four year hitch in the Navy repairing sound-powered telephones aboard a ship. That was not how I wanted to spend those years.

            When I joined the Navy in November of 1954, I left a job wiring selectors and connectors at Western Electric in Lincoln, Nebraska. I belonged to the Communications Workers of America [CWA], a pretty good union, and I made $2.42 an hour or about $450 a month with overtime. As a Seaman Recruit in the Navy, I made $78 a month, but that $78 was all spending money. The Navy provided room and board, clothing, haircuts, medical, and dental. From ET/A School, I went aboard the U. S. S. Chemung, a tanker or ‘oiler’ destined for a tour of the Pacific Islands. The ship’s mission was to refuel Navy ships operating in the Philippines and Taiwan.

            Aboard ship, I found everything neatly organized. There were few if any decisions to make. I didn’t need any money to speak of, a few dollars to buy toothpaste or candy from the ship’s store, so I just left my pay on the books when I was at sea. Most of the guys who used up their money were gamblers. I played a little poker as a kid, but never got into heavy gambling and I wasn’t interested in the games that went on every night in the crew’s lounge or the compartments. Most of the players were always broke and in debt to the loan sharks who got 50% interest on their money. These guys stood next to the pay line and collected their money.

            There was no indecision about shipboard life. Everyone got up at six, showered, shaved, got dressed, headed up to the galley for breakfast, then mustered for morning Quarters for the head count. Any information the Executive Officer wanted to pass along to the entire crew would be heard at that time. If we were due to anchor in Subic Bay in a few days and had received orders to change course and refuel a can [Destroyer], we heard the details at Quarters. Division officers or chiefs reported to the Exec on the Quarterdeck that ‘all hands were present or accounted for,’ then returned to make the day’s assignments. This was always a tense period, because no one knew who would get the dreaded shit details, the worst of which was mucking tanks. If you’ve cleaned out the oil pan on your car, just multiply that sludge a thousand times and you have the horror associated with mucking the huge tanks that hold crude oil on a tanker. I got the detail once and the fumes almost put me under. We had to dig out that sludge, put it into buckets, then pass the buckets up to the guys on deck. What was done with that shit is anybody’s guess. I don’t know and I never asked. I was so glad to get back out of that tank; I just headed for the shower.

            Ship’s work commenced at 8. Lunch was in the galley at 12. Work from 1 to 4, then ‘knock off ship’s work.’ The liberty party was told to ‘lay up to the Quarterdeck’ if we were in port or at anchor. If we were in Subic Bay or Kaohsiung [city in Taiwan], we had port and starboard liberty which meant that half the crew had liberty one day, the other half the next. If we were at anchor, the liberty boat made a run for the fleet landing each hour during the evening. The last boat was at midnight when liberty was over. Anyone who wanted to remain ashore overnight had to put in a special request. The same for a weekend. We had a number of Filipino sailors on board and they had friends or family in Subic, Manila, or Limay and wanted overnight and weekend passes while we were in port. Special Requests was submitted to the division yeoman who got them initialed by the division officer then sent them to the ship’s office for approval by the Exec. They were rarely refused. There were guys who sold their liberty when they didn’t want to go on the beach. Other people just traded. The problem was if you traded with someone, you agreed to stand that person’s watch, so people were always careful to check the watch list first before agreeing to a trade. Some watches were easy and others, like the midwatch, were difficult. There are people on watch on a ship at all time:  sentries on the bow, fantail, bridge, and an OD [Officer of the Day] on the Quarterdeck. The watch is monitored by a roving patrol, always my favorite watch, because I got to wander all over the ship and visit with everyone. When I had roving patrol at night, I would stop in the galley and fill my personal coffee cup from the urn that was full day and night, then I would head for the bakery where Lou would have his fresh stuff sitting out to cool. Lou baked at night--cherry or apple cobbler, fresh cakes, rolls, and pastries the like I haven’t found since I was discharged to go to college in 1958. I sat and exchanged scuttlebutt [gossip] with Lou, then continued on my rounds, getting the log initialed by the various sentries, before I hit the Radio Shack where I had my 45 rpm record player stashed. Inside with the hatch battened down, the duty radio crew put on a stack of the 45’s we had bought, usually at Woolworth’s on Market Street in San Francisco during numerous liberties there, and we spend awhile enjoying early rock and roll by the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis, and Gene Vincent. Bill Haley and the Comets got it all started with the success of Rock Around the Clock in 1955 and when I was home on leave I used to dance to it with my teenaged sister and her girl friends in our living room. It was Bop then, a dance term swiped from the Bebop forties.

            There were a couple of TVs in the Crews’ lounges, but I don’t recall ever watching anything on them. I ignored TV for years, but I loved the music and I went dancing all the time when I went on liberty, especially in San Francisco. I danced regularly at the USO on Market Street and at the Golden Gate YMCA. Once in a while I took the Ferry to Oakland and went dancing at the Ali Baba, but I didn’t go there often enough to make any friends. I knew most of the college women who volunteered at the USO and I dated a few of them after I was stationed on Treasure Island near the end of my tour of duty.

            All decisions come from the top down on a ship. The orders come in from on high and are passed on down the chain of command from the Captain to the Division Officers. I went aboard the Chemung in San Francisco where the ship was on cold iron watch, meaning the engines were shut down and the ship was undergoing various repairs, so it was awhile before I was completely oriented. I was assigned to the Engineering Division, given a rack and a locker, and left to myself. When I found I didn’t have to stay aboard on the weekends unless I wanted to, I rented a hotel room up on Market Street. The room cost a dollar a night. I rented a regular locker in one of the locker clubs and stored some civilian clothes there. I was told when we were stateside the ship would dock either in Oakland or San Francisco and I paid for my locker by the year.

            New men aboard ship are assigned either mess cooking or compartment cleaning for three weeks. This is probably the hardest work a lot of sailors do their entire hitch. On mess cooking, I was up at 3:30 in the morning peeling potatoes and carrots and preparing other produce for the cooks. Mess cooks do all the shit work, none of the cooking. Some serve on the line when needed, but most just handle the chores and take out the trash. Being on mess duty does not mean having no other duties. I still had to get to Quarters every morning after the mess chores were done and turn to at another job at eight. Assigned to Engineering, I was a Fireman Apprentice and I stood watch in the engine room, where the Chief played the usual jokes on me, like telling me to run up to the galley and get him ten yards of chow line or up to the bridge to tell the helmsman to cut the cooling water in to the handrails. A month later I watched the same jokes being played on other new guys. A watch in the boiler room was deadly. My job was to take readings from various meters and to change the burners in the boilers. Any hot oil spilled on the deck plates meant a clean-up job and it was almost impossible to pull a burner and not get some oil on the plates. The noise of the engines was deafening. Combine that with intense heat and the shifting of the ship in rough water and you have a situation that often had novices losing their lunch. I was never seasick, but I saw many of my buddies losing it over the side every time we got underway.

            All references are to the ship when you’re aboard. You’re either topside or below decks, either fore or aft or amidships, either port or starboard, and if you’re not aboard, you’re on the beach whether there is a beach there or not. If you’re at work, you’re dressed in the uniform of the day, normally dungaree pants, a blue chambray shirt, and a white hat. In port, you may be wearing undress whites or blues, but on the beach you’ll be in dress blues or whites. Every sailor wears his rate on his left sleeve near the shoulder. After a month or so in the engine room, the office learned I could type and I was shifted into the Engineering Office to become the yeoman there. That was like a reprieve from hell.

            I always had a little competition going with the ship’s yeoman. He worked for the Executive Officer, but was considered the Captain’s yeoman, so he was number one and he was snobbish about it. One evening I ran into him in a pool hall in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and learned that he considered himself something of a pool shark. Well, I had played since I was twelve. He quit when I had about $30 of his money. He racked his cue, said I was too good, and walked outside. I stood there feeling satisfied with myself, but when I turned to rack my cue a young Chinese woman in a shiny green dress was standing near the foot of the table with a cue. By her gestures, it was clear she wanted to play, so I shrugged. Fine. There was no bet. We’d just shoot a straight game of pool. I motioned for her to break. We were surrounded by young Taiwanese by then and I was the only white hat in the place. The woman/girl was maybe 14 years old. She broke and ran the table as smoothly as Willie Hoppe. I never got a shot. She smiled. I smiled and bowed slightly, racked my cue, paid up and left. I was still young enough then to feel embarrassed about losing to a girl and I was glad no one from the ship had been watching that game. I hopped a pedicab back to the Fleet Landing. It wasn’t a long walk, but the streets of Kaohsiung were mobbed with bicycles then and I was always afraid of getting hit.

            I loved being at sea. Can’t lie to you about it. I went places I would never ordinarily see, all expenses paid. When I was in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, The Philippine Islands or Sydney, Australia, all I needed was my liberty card. No passport. No hassles. The trip to Australia was a goodwill cruise and we were at sea for 28 straight days. When we crossed the International Date Line, the old salts held an initiation ceremony for the rest of us. We were to become members of the Society of Neptune, turned from the lowly pollywogs we were into seasoned shellbacks. The uniform of the day was dungaree pants worn backwards. We pollywogs were an anxious and insecure lot that day, because we had no idea what the shellbacks had in store for us. We knew it would be vicious because of the people involved, like the Gunner’s Mate first who got his kicks shooting at seagulls off the fantail with his .45, and the Chief Boiler Tender who like to play mean jokes on the apprentices. We expected a hard time and we got it. Neptune’s throne had been set up amidships in front of a huge vat filled with water. Each pollywog in the line below deck had to go up and kiss the greasy throne, then sit down facing the King while his hair was chopped and greased and filled with paint. Once he was suitably adorned to the King’s taste, the wog was pushed over backwards into the vat of water and told to swim to the other side and get out. The shellbacks surrounding the vat did their best to prevent the greasy wog from getting out and when he did escape it was likely he fell to the deck before getting to his feet and running the gauntlet where the rest of the shellbacks were stationed with shillelaghs in hand. This pollywog just wanted to get the whole thing over with and felt lucky at not seeing certain faces on that line as he felt the sting of the shillelaghs smack his hips and thighs. Once through the line, I could relax and watch the other guys struggle through, but it wasn’t a lot of fun if you want to know the truth. I was sunburned as hell. My knee was bruised and scraped. I had bruises on my ass and thighs. My hair felt like shit and I knew I would have to get it cut off by the barber and let it grow back in because there was no way I could wash all that grease and red paint out of it. On the other side, I was now a shellback with all the rights and privileges and the next crossing I would be able to torture and beat the next wave of hapless apprentices. It was not unlike a fraternity initiation, though most of those fetes are much milder by comparison.

            We were well treated during our two week stay in Sydney and I had some experiences there that have no counterpart in the United States. We were considered guests of the city and were not allowed to pay for anything. We were given dinners in nice clubs and there were parties held for us. We took cabs here and there and the cabbies wouldn’t accept any money from us. I met a nurse named Janet Foley at a dance and I rode home with her on the train later that evening. Unfortunately, that was the last train, and after walking her to her house and returning I found myself faced with sleeping on a bench in the station. I realized this would make me AOL [Away without authorized leave--My liberty was up at midnight.] and I was upset. I was pacing when the police stopped by and I thought Oh, Oh, I’m in for something now, but the two officers asked me what was up and I told my story and the driver said, well, get in, Yank, and we’ll drive you back to your ship. It was 26 miles away! On the trip they asked me questions about the U. S. They were particularly interested in Elvis and the pop scene. I had had the same experience talking to young Japanese guys outside a record store on the Ginza in Tokyo. All of them wore their hair duck ass style in imitation of Elvis. The cops drove me to the gangway of the ship on the pier and told me if I had any trouble they would be happy to come up and explain to the Officer of the Deck what had happened. I knew the duty officer, however, and he just waved me aboard. I gave a thumbs up to the two cops and they drove off.

            I’m sure the crew on a Navy ship making the same visit to Sydney today would have a radically different experience than we had in 1957, because the circumstances are not the same. When we were there, Australia had a great shortage of men. Hundreds of thousands of young men had been killed fighting in World War 2. This meant a huge surplus of women. When my ship was open to visitors on the weekends, we were mobbed with women and they were all flirtatious and friendly and anxious to invite us to parties or make dates with us. It was overwhelming, a fairy tale experience. I corresponded with the nurse I dated for nearly two years while I was studying at San Francisco State College and I seriously considered moving to Australia when I got my degree. That didn’t happen for one reason or another, but I am sure a lot of my shipmates had similar experiences and some of them may have married their Australian women friends. I’m romantic enough to hope so.

            I joined the Navy to escape Nebraska. I did not see myself doing the same repetitive factory job year after year. Though I had dropped out of high school due to my father’s death in 1949, I was well read and I did not stop reading. Facing another miserable Nebraska winter, I was passing the recruiting office one day and I just went inside and signed up. It was, I thought, now or never. Best decision I ever made. While I was aboard ship, I read most of the books in the small ship’s library and by the time I was mustered out in 1958, I was ready to take on college life.

            In November of ‘54, while I was reading letters from my mother and sister about heavy snowstorms, icy streets, and below zero weather, I was enjoying a warm sunny winter in training camp in San Diego.


JANUARY 14, 1967 by Clay Geerdes

 

Today is the 30th anniversary of the great Gathering of all Tribes for a Human Be-in at the Polo Grounds in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. I was teaching English at Fresno State College that year, 33 years old, married six years to my second wife, Shirley, living in a basement flat at 903 Ashbury Street, a couple of blocks from an intersection that had recently become known all over the world. A lot of people were dying in Viet Nam that Saturday morning when we left the apartment and walked down the hill to Haight Street, but there were no helicopters above the trees that framed what was known locally as the panhandle of the park. It was a bright, warm, sunny day, and people were all heading in the same direction. We turned the corner, glanced into the Psychedelic Shop, and fell in step with the crowd of costumed people on their way to what was anticipated as the greatest happening yet. The Be-in was announced in the Berkeley BARB and other underground papers, notably the San Francisco ORACLE, and there were flyers and posters in the windows of numerous magazine and head shops listing the celebrities and performers who would be present to entertain the community. Tim Leary would be there. Leary had been going around the country lecturing on the wonders of LSD, telling his audiences to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Problem was, the majority who followed Dr. Leary’s prescription for expanding consciousness were teenage runaways who had never dropped in, kids who had no work experience. For them, the appeal of psychedelic drugs was purely hedonistic. While an educated psychologist and Harvard teacher like Leary might use psychedelic drugs to explore the parameters of his own consciousness and enhance his writing ability, the average teenager dropped acid to get high. He blew his mind, that barely formed repository of parental and societal rules of behavior, and once acid had helped rid him/her of Establishment restraints, he was ready for colorful trips into inner space, not to mention technicolor orgasms and an instant understanding of the lyrics of Dylan’s SUBTERRANEAN HOMESICK BLUES and POSITIVELY FOURTH STREET.         Acid was passed around as casually by local teenagers as it had been by CIA agents attached to MK-ULTRA a few years earlier. Yes, though we didn’t know it in 1967, Johnny Acidseed actually worked for the CIA, seeding the unsuspecting populace with LSD in hopes it would prove to be an effective crowd control substance. Didn’t work that way, naturally, and it was so easy to make that it quickly circulated among the hip population as the ultimate high. Acid did, however, work quite well as an antidote to activism. Turn on by dropping acid, tune in to your inner self, and drop of out external social games, including organizing against an illegal, undeclared war; Hippies or Heads were never in phase with activists, though after a year or so they might appear similar because of their long hair and beards. While the activists, defamed as ‘militant students’ by a corrupt Establishment press, held meetings and organized marches and demonstrations, acidheads got high, listened to rock music, turned singers and lyricists into prophets, had unsafe sex as often as possible, and rejected the parental generation as ‘unhip,’ ‘straight,’ ‘uncool,’ ‘out of it,’ and, generally, ‘the brainwashed victims of the Establishment.’

            Drug rap was epidemic. No one could escape it. The younger people were pressured at every turn to experiment with psychedelic drugs. Nearly everyone I knew from college was dropping acid and talking about their trips and I couldn’t get through a single conversation with a couple of my best friends without hearing about someone who had just gotten back from Taos where they made the rounds of the communes and ate peyote buttons and had visions like those written about by Carlos Castaneda in his books. I had to listen to long raps about a psych prof up in Sonoma County who was leading his students through ‘some groovy psilocybin trips.’

            ‘Hey, man, you read Burroughs’ book about Yage? He got it from a real Shaman. That’s for me, man.’

            ‘Oh, wow, whatta trip.’

            Though my wife and I were never into drugs, we soon found that everyone we knew, including some of our straightest friends, now teachers and social workers like ourselves, was smoking marijuana fairly regularly and dropping acid on the weekends. Shirley and I were going through a period of monogamy and we were surprised to find that some of our friends had been to meetings of groups like the Sexual Freedom League and talked openly about having had group sex down at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Stories and articles about drug and sex trips were common. People often wrote journals of their LSD experiences and published them. Peter Fonda made several drug movies. THE TRIP was a dud, but EASY RIDER found a cultic audience. Acid became a fad, a craze, and when celebrities like The Beatles or the Stones or Cary Grant dropped acid it was a media event covered by all the papers and tabloids. The Establishment press went nuts covering the antics and pranks of folks like Neal Cassidy, Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, and Jerry Rubin. Fashion spies copied all the externals of hipness and capitalism assimilated, packaged, and resold it all as fast as possible. Polyester people in the suburbs were soon wearing bell bottomed slacks, body shirts, ‘granny’ glasses, and FRODO LIVES buttons. Their teenagers had acid rock posters on the walls of their bedrooms and went around saying ‘far out’ and ‘groovy’ as they considered the parents who bought them all that crap to be ‘uptight.’ Those near enough ran away to San Francisco for a weekend, while others who hitched back to their homes in the midwest tossed marijuana seeds out the windows. Before long, marijuana was growing wild along the highways of Nebraska and Iowa and the highway patrol was busting hippie busses that stopped to harvest a bit on their way through.

            All of us had read Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, and anything Kesey did was fascinating to us. We followed his travels, went to hear him talk at the Experimental College at San Francisco State, loved the way he trashed the Establishment, admired the way he outwitted the FBI by putting on a suit and tie and going down to the financial district. Kesey wore a gold space suit at his Trips Festival in ‘65, and they were probably looking for that gold suit.

            We followed Allen Ginsberg’s career, too. I had seen Allen read his poem ‘America’ back in 1956 when I was a sailor walking around on upper Grant in North Beach. At that time I thought who is this crazy bearded Beatnik? but by 1967 I had followed the HOWL trial and heard Ginsberg read a number of times and I thought of him as the poet laureate of the U. S., a title he is not likely to have, but one he ought to have. Allen’s always been a great performer of his work and you can’t say that of all poets. He put on a good show. When he got into his Hindu trip after his stay in India, he drove his audiences nuts chanting mantras, but that didn’t change the way many of us felt about him. Allen bridged the gap between hippie and activist as well as that between gay and straight. He was present at the marches and he spoke at political events and he was never wishy-washy about anything. His critique of modern capitalism is devastating and HOWL is as valid today as it was in the late fifties when he was writing it.

            They were all present at the Human Be-in, all the icons of hip, the psychedelic pioneers, the performers, and the way you see them or remember them depends on where and who you were at the time. If you were a parent whose daughter or son were somewhere in Haight-Ashbury and you didn’t know where they were or what they were doing, it is unlikely you think well of those who might have played a part in luring them there. I’ve talked to people who consider Tim Leary worse than Simon Legree and hate his guts, people who cheered when he died on the internet. I’ve always considered this a bit strange, because there were so many other people promoting psychedelic drugs at the time that it seems a little unusual to act as though Leary were the ultimate villain. I’ve yet to hear anyone say anything negative about Ken Kesey and I heard Ken personally promoting acid more times than I can remember. Taking acid was practically a rite of passage during the mid-sixties in Haight-Ashbury and there were few who could resist. Even if you did, you were likely to be spiked and sent on an unexpected trip. I never took acid and I was at parties when just about everyone was stoned but me. As I’ve written elsewhere, I went on only two trips and both were spikes. The first was at Mike Corrigan’s wedding reception. Someone thought it was cute to lace the frosting on his wedding cake with acid. I started seeing colors and my vision shifted while I was driving across the hills to my apartment on Noe Street. I knew enough about the drug to know what was happening, but I could have been killed just the same. There were many people who considered it their duty to try to turn other people on to acid with or against their consent. After that cake experience, I was careful about what I ate or drank at someone else’s house, no matter how well I knew them.

            The Human Be-in in ‘67 was an important event in my life. For the first time I realized how many people were involved in what everyone felt was a movement toward a new lifestyle, toward retribalization. When we reached the Polo Grounds [where Rugby is played now], there were people covering almost every inch of space. I had never seen so many people in one place in my life. We made our way toward the stage, stepping over blankets and people tanning themselves. Tim Leary was talking to some people behind the stage. Allen Ginsberg was nearby. Both wore East Indian clothing. Jerry Rubin wore the uniform of a soldier of the Revolutionary war. Lenore Kandel was there. Her LOVE BOOK had been called obscene and she had been through a trial over it. I saw her onstage with Ginsberg and Leary later in the day. I saw Ken Kesey’s bus in the distance, some Harleys guarded by Hell’s Angels, a lot of varied costumes, and a few members of Sopwith Camel waiting to take the stage. Marty Balin and Jerry Garcia were sitting against the tires of a vehicle, passing a joint back and forth. Paul Kantner was nearby tuning his guitar. Jorma Kaukonen was there, but I didn’t see Grace Slick. Many of the band members lived on Ashbury Street and we often saw them during the day. I was headed down to Haight the day Jack Cassidy drove up in his new red Mustang. It was a day of poetry and music and general celebration and the political people kept their lines to a minimum. When the music started people got up and danced and it was easily the biggest dance on earth to that point. It would be upstaged in 1968 by Woodstock and in 1969 by Altamont and I am sure the crowds would have continued to get larger and larger if certain promoters could have figured out a way to do it. There was a group trying for a Be-in in Grand Canyon and after People’s Park in April and May of 1969, there were people promoting Earth People’s Park. I dunno.

            How many of you would like to go to a party to be attended by 5 billion people?



IN A CANCER CLINIC IN MEXICO by Clay Geerdes

 

When you are diagnosed with cancer in the United States, very few alternatives are offered by the medical profession. I’ve already had one of them, surgery to remove a tumor in my colon, but the liver cancer that was found at the same time?--welcome to chemo-therapy. I declined, recalling a number of friends who had undergone this debilitating treatment only to die a few months later anyway. Instead, I decided to go to Mexico and seek alternative treatment in one of the clinics there. I arrived in late November of 1996 and signed in for a three week treatment program. Electronic testing revealed my body was infested with parasites, bacteria, and viruses and a blood test revealed my liver enzymes were just as frantic as they had been when I left the hospital in October. The doctor said I was critical, which I knew, then went on to tell me what I would have to do to heal myself, namely get rid of the parasites and metals which were promoting the growth of the small tumors in my liver. You get rid of the parasites with various vitamin supplements and herbal cleanses enhanced by nightly enemas. Metals like cobalt, Mercury and vanadium, alas, come from fillings in the teeth; consequently, either the fillings or the teeth have to go in order for healing to take place, i.e., tumor growth to cease.

             Like my fellow patients, I balked at the loss of my chewing teeth, but faced with a choice between death and toothlessness, I accepted an appointment with the dentist. Lest you think the problem was simply one of replacing the old Mercury amalgam fillings with a new safe plastic, let me disillusion you right away by saying the doctor found the plastic to be contaminated with thallium, one of the metallic ingredients in rat poison, and a metal quite lethal to cancer patients. So my choice was to have the fillings removed and go around with a lot of holes in my teeth until a safe composite was found with which to refill them or give up the teeth and buy dentures made from a safe material. I tried having a few teeth extracted and a couple of fillings removed, but the pain from the empties was a drag so I had those removed, too. I had two sessions with Dr. Rogelio Hernandez in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. The first time I lost six teeth and the second time I lost 9, a record for the clinic. Both scenes were high comedy. Peter Sellers would have loved it. I am flat on my back in the chair and the dentist is shooting me up with enough Novocaine to stone an elephant; meanwhile, his gorgeous dark haired nurse is watching the show while both listen to pop Mexican songs on the sound system. As my molars pop out and onto the tray, they are discussing the singers. It’s all in Spanish, but I have spoken that language since I was a boy working at the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska, so I understand nearly everything they are saying and realize the absurdity of it all. I am losing my teeth while these folks are chatting about pop music and fashion. She’s defending the pop music preferred by her generation, while he in his early forties admits to liking some of it, while he finds too many of the song lyrics dirty. Through all of this I am aware of a flirtatious undercurrent between them. I liked Hernandez; He did a good job, and didn’t break my jawbone as happened to a few of the other patients who went to lesser dentists. He had a nice machinage sculpture of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on his book shelf. Nice touch, that. I was glancing at the Don as Hernandez explained his sheet of instructions to me in his office. Ice to stop the bleeding. Later on, heat for the pain. Meanwhile, I’m bleeding all over the place and I can’t feel my lips at all so I don’t know I am drooling like a character out of THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD until I stroke what’s left of my short grey chin beard. I go outside the modern building and stop in the pharmacy to pick up my pain killer, then I wait on the steps. People pass and glance at me as I read a few pages of a Ross MacDonald mystery and bleed all over the text. Jorge picks me up in his Toyota and drives me back to the clinic and he chats at me along the way about this and that. We have had some nice conversations on those trips, but my half of the conversation is cut off this time and I can only nod when he talks about the model city of Tijuana atop a recent building and wonders when they are going to finish work on the freeway so folks will no longer have to detour through the slums of town in order to get back to the border.

            The clinic, recommended to me by a close friend who learned of it in a book, is not in Tijuana, rather it is in a suburb near the beach, and the ride is surreal. The first time I drove it was an exercise in freeway terror. I stayed in a small motel in Imperial Beach, one approved by the clinic because the water pipes were free of copper and other metals dangerous to a cancer patient like me, and while the room was clean and neat, it was rather cold at night. My routine was to get up around 6:30 or 7, take all my supplements [horrible tasting stuff, kidney herbs, etc.], eat some oatmeal or scrambled eggs, and head for the clinic around 9:30. I gave other people a ride back and forth, because all the people in the motel were fellow patients and on the return to the U. S. from Mexico I got across the border faster with some riders than I could alone. Three or more puts me in the carpool lane and that shaved half an hour off the time. My first adventure came courtesy of Budget. I rented a Dodge from them for a week and when I returned across the border I was stopped and taken to the secondary area. I didn’t think anything about this at first, because I had no experience crossing the border and I thought they pulled cars over at random and checked the trunk for contraband, etc., but it turned out that Budget had reported the damned Dodge stolen back in August and had not told the San Diego Police, ergo, the license number was still in the border computer and I was driving what appeared to be a stolen car. The border guard took my license and the rental agreement and I sat and waited. When he returned, he told me the story and we talked a bit. He said if I had not looked like I did [a tired out old Gringo], I would probably be in handcuffs sitting inside the holding area now. Instead, I sat in the car in the shed, waiting for a San Diego cop to drive all the way out from San Diego to release the car. They couldn’t do it by computer. Upgrade, guys, get a modem! So that first night it took me two and a half hours just to cross the border. Going to Mexico is a breeze. The Mexicans just wave you through unless you have a truck or something they have to check. I was never stopped going in and after that first night I was usually waved back into the States after a quick look at my driver’s license. The funniest crossing was the one after I had the nine teeth out, because the woman sitting next to me had to act as my nurse and when she saw blood running down the sides of my mouth she had to use one of the Kleenexes and blot me. I had her tell the border guard we were returning from the dentist as though he couldn’t see I had a mouth full of gauze and blood. She was a delightful British woman who had a sailing business in England with a nurse friend from Scotland and the two of them became close buddies as we went through the clinic routines together.

            Wasn’t that distracting? Oh, I was telling you about the freeway. Well, the old International Highway to Ensenada is called the Rosarita Scenic Route once you get past the border gates and you head that way to go to the beach. There is a high wall on your right so there is nothing scenic about it until you get past that into the mountains. Suddenly, with very little warning, you realize you are much higher than you thought you were and to your right is a drop you wouldn’t believe. No way to see the bottom. Think of the high Sierras. Not only that, but no one pays a bit of attention to the speed limit and cars familiar with the road are whizzing by. Dead animals are routine. People often run across the freeway in order to scale the wall and look at the San Diego skyline in the distance. No one climbs over, because it is a sheer drop down the mountain on the other side. I veered left and took the Playas De Tijuana cut-off to the beach. Normally, I went straight to the clinic, signed in, and began a day of blood tests, shots, foul drinks of this and that, electronic tests, and, perhaps, half an hour conference with the doctor, but some days, after I knew the routine, I signed in, then went out and drove around.  I am not naming the clinic or the doctor here for legal reasons, so you’ll have to be content with the essence of the experience. Needless to say, the doctor and the method are not approved by the Great American Medical Establishment or the Cancer Industry which routinely represses research into alternative therapies in this country by control of grant and research funds.

            The Playas [beaches] is a middle-class suburb with a lot of schools and colleges and small businesses, as well as a large modern shopping center, nothing at all like the shabby downtown Tijuana which remains an enigma because of its blatant poverty juxtaposed with modern medical buildings and factories. There are well over a million people in the area now and many of them are well to do. I’m sure a few of them own the beautiful homes I saw around the Playas, houses built in various architectural styles most with walled gardens at the rear and iron gates at the entrance. The tops of the walls were protected with barbed wire or broken glass frozen into the wall, indicating a paranoia little different than that in the gated communities of the Bay Area. Interestingly enough, the rich have not grabbed the beach in Playas as they have in San Francisco. Where Playland once was, there are now condos owned by the well-to-do, but in Playas, the beach front belongs to ordinary people and there are small homes and businesses there as well as a cheap motel where some of the clinic patients stay. The peso is worth about twelve and a half cents and prices are much cheaper in Mexico which partially explains the huge volume of traffic crossing and re-crossing the border each day. On the other hand, many people now work in Mexico and return to the U. S. in the evening and there are Mexican commuters as well so there is hardly a moment when the border is not heavily used. I had good experiences in Playas. One afternoon I left the key of the rented Hyundai [Yes, I switched from Budget to Dollar after that fiasco with the Dodge.] in the trunk of the car and I was sitting in the patio of the clinic when I saw several young people messing around the car which I had parked across the street. My Berkeley paranoia was triggered, and I got up and walked across the street to see what was up, I was pleasantly surprised when a polite young man gave me the car key and told me I left it in the trunk. He had already written a note to put under my wiper telling me I could find my keys in the office of the nearby school. I thanked him and asked him about the school in Spanish and the students gathered around me and we had a nice conversation about the school and what I was doing in Mexico. They said they hoped I had a good time in their country and they looked forward to visiting the U. S.

            All of the workers at the clinic were Mexican and I had a nice rapport with them. Knowing the language, I quickly fell into the role of interpreter and found myself reading letters for people, etc. I didn’t like what I learned, of course, because I found the Mexican workers were being paid very low wages for what was one hell of a lot of hard work, most of which they were not qualified for. There was a registered nurse who did the blood tests and gave the shots, but some of the women who worked in the kitchen and ran errands around the clinic were asked to do things that I found inappropriate, like trying to give care to seriously ill patients.  More often than not, the language barrier was critical. It’s not very different in the U.S. where assistants and orderlies tend more and more to be people from other cultures who have not learned English or assimilated. At the clinic, I saw Mexican women expected to do several different jobs, often conflicting tasks, all for the same pay. At the same time, they were considerate to the patients and did not take out their frustration on them. The young men doing a lot of the testing were part time college students and I learned a lot about them and their lives while I was being tested because they would gossip with one another in Spanish. It was mid-December of 1996 and Christmas was going on all around us, but the patients at the clinic were involved in learning survival techniques and we gave little thought to things like cards and gifts and decorated trees and houses. There were a lot of houses decorated with lights around the Playas and when I asked Jorge if he was going to get a Christmas tree he said yes, for his little girl. She rode with us into town on one of my dentist trips, a very beautiful three year old who looked like her dark eyed mother. Toward evening I often sat in the car in front of the clinic and waited while someone was putting together my supplements. People passed by on their way to the little store a couple of doors down. The young dressed just as they do in the U.S. Lots of baseball caps on backwards. Some oversized clothes. Those who wore uniforms went to the Catholic school nearby. Boys on skateboards zoomed down the Paseo. One afternoon I bought a local paper and read about a soap opera that would begin production in February of 1997; it would be filmed in and around San Diego County, Tijuana, and Ensenada. The title was TIJUANA. I read that young women were still being kidnapped and sold into prostitution. A nun had started a home for these people in Juarez and she had gone to war with the pimps and dope dealers in her area. A bumper strip I saw on a lot of cars was NO TO DROGAS [No to drugs]. In the time I was in Tijuana or the Playas, no one tried to sell me any drugs. I was hustled and panhandled as I often was on Telegraph Avenue, but no one really bothered me. When I bought a few cards and things for friends, I wasn’t hustled or cheated in any way. I did my dealing in Spanish and was well treated. At the border, beggars work the traffic as it waits. Young women, often pregnant, carry their babies up to the car and stand there looking as pathetic as they know how. I saw some of them in the daytime on the Calle de la Revolution where the majority of the souvenir shops are located. They work the street during the day, then make their way to the border in the late afternoon, because that is where the action is. A lot of people go down just to watch the action. Salespeople from the shops carry their blankets and trinkets and plaster of Paris statues of Tweety and Sylvester in and out among the cars. A man carried a giant framed painting of Jesus from car to car. Another woman sold the latest Mexican magazines. Armed Mexican police ride up and down on bicycles, checking the cars, and as we approach the gates, American border guards walk around with dope-sniffing dogs. If someone a block behind us smoked a joint and exhaled on a car, the dog would mark it for inspection and the people inside would be in for a good time. While I was waiting for my own release, I saw a woman and her teenaged children held. Her Volvo was searched thoroughly. They even went through the trash, shook out the candy wrappers on the seat, and made the teenagers take off their shoes. She was busted and when I went inside to use the john, I heard her talking to a tall guy who must have been an attorney. They were talking about $25,000 bail. Any Mexican car with two or three people in it was sent to the checking area and the people shaken down completely. At the border, you see all the excesses, and while you watch the parade of misery and bureaucratic nonsense you breathe the smog of a hundred vehicles idling, just idling. Everyone who crosses the border regularly in the late afternoon looks like Two-Face from the Batman comic book, because the sun is glaring at the left side of your face and by the time you get through the gate that side is a lot redder than the other.

            I was always amazed at the accuracy of the clinic’s electronic testing equipment. If someone drank a cup of coffee [no caffeine permitted at the clinic. No other stimulants or drugs either. We were allowed to take the prescribed pain pills for our sore gums for two days, then no more.] one day, it would show up in their test the following day. The person would test positive for benzene, a chemical used in the processing of coffee beans. If a pastry was eaten, the person usually tested positive for aflatoxin, a mold. We learned that most breads and pastries that are sold pre-wrapped in stores are moldy and the only safe ones are those made fresh in bakeries. We learned that various fruits and vegetables produce malonic acid which is dangerous for cancer patients so we have to avoid those foods. Oranges, for example! I can drink grapefruit juice, but not orange juice. I can have red potatoes, but no carrots or broccoli. One patient cheated and ate a candy bar one Sunday. Her Monday test was positive for aflatoxin. It was a chocolate bar with almonds and the almonds were moldy. The doctor used a syncrometer to test the overall body for chemical solvents like isopropyl alcohol and benzene and bacteria like salmonella and if she found the body positive for any of these she then used slides of tissue samples to test various organs until she found the exact location of the chemical or parasite.

            Isopropyl alcohol is used to clean almost all processing equipment in factories and is as a result found in nearly all the products, particularly in soft drinks and bottled water. The water is fine, but the bottles, glass or plastic contain residual amounts of isopropyl alcohol, hence are dangerous to anyone with cancer. The problem with the chemicals is simple. The body cannot process them. They are not foods, hence the body tries to encapsulate them and protect the organs from them. When they are surrounded, they become small cysts and the bacteria inside them are then protected from the body’s immune system and allowed to grow. This may become a tumor. The program I am on involves clearing my body of these chemicals along with the parasites and bacteria that combine with them to produce small cancerous tumors of the type I now have in my liver. I am taking supplements like Co-

Enzyme Q-10, which kills all stages of the liver fluke, and I am using a small electronic device designed to kill parasites and viruses. At the clinic it was called a zapper and what happens is relatively simple. Every bacterium and virus has a specific frequency. Sending that frequency through the body kills the bacteria and viruses. The zapper is programmed with the frequencies of all the major bacteria from salmonella to staphylococcus and a patient zaps once a day to clear the body. The process takes about an hour. Each session lasts seven minutes with twenty minute intervals in between. Some people feel something as they zap, but I don’t feel anything. The frequency is too low for most to detect it. The device is about the size of a small tape recorder and two rubber-coated wires are attached with a piece of copper pipe at the end. The pipe is wrapped in a piece of paper towel, then the towel is sprayed with a little water to make sure of the contact. I hold one of the contacts in each hand and hit the start button. The zapper beeps after seven minutes, then beeps me again when I am to do my second zap. It shuts off after my third.

            The doctor uses weekly blood tests along with the syncrometer to monitor each patient’s progress. When I went in I had pretty disastrous figures on my blood test, particularly the liver enzymes. One nurse said I ought to be dead with those figures, but I felt all right. I was still having some liver pains and walking around holding a hot water bottle on my side, but my head was clear and I had no nausea. I’m amazed that I was able to undergo all the stress of the border crossings and that hellish Southern California freeway culture in my weakened condition. I weighed about 143 pounds. I kept my sense of humor through it all and enjoyed the company of the other patients. Here we were, as diverse a group of people as you might have found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and we bonded quickly. We had hours of waiting time and we spent it telling stories about our cancer and gossiping about the other patients and clinic personnel. We had to joke about a lot of the things that were happening, because there was no other way to deal with it. There was a man with lung cancer from the East. He had owned a string of steak houses in his prime and had retired. He went home with no trace of the cancer showing on his blood test! There was a Rabbi from Israel with his wife. She had been cured of her breast cancer and was back for a check-up. There was a retired teacher from Vancouver who was taking care of his wife. She had lost a kidney and part of one thigh and was now sporting a new set of false teeth but feeling better than she had in a long time. They had been missionaries earlier in their lives. A young man from New York was there for his skin cancer and his friend was an opera singer. I took them across the border one evening and we laughed hysterically all the way, making jokes about a lecture we had just heard on enema techniques. No, there was no demonstration. That lecture was given by an ex-Krishna who started it off with a bit of transcendental meditation which irritated those of us who just ‘hate all that new age crapola as a matter of course. An older Christian woman told me later she wasn’t having any of that Eastern stuff, that she said her own prayer to Jesus while the woman was playing her raga tape. Well, Repubs, Demos, atheists, whatever, we were all unified by our cancer, and I became very close to a lot of the people there. We worried about the people who were closer to the end than we were and we kept up on those who had to go to the emergency hospital. I always stopped in to pass a few minutes with an English woman who had to be fed through an I-V because she couldn’t take anything solid. She was a very sweet person, the mother of three kids. They wanted her to come home, I am sure, but she was determined to survive. We saw people who were post-chemo, thin, hairless creatures with no body fat, people way too late for the clinic, which was, after all, a diagnostic clinic for outpatients, one which had no facilities for dealing with those who required intensive care.

            After my teeth were gone, and I didn’t really have that much trouble giving them up, because I could only see a lot of root canals, crowns, and heavy financial problems related to them in the future, and I thought, well, so I’ll have false teeth like my brother, so? Anyway, once they were gone I hoped I would be out of the woods, but the doctor still found some of the metals and it turned out I had a root canal the first dentist missed so I was off to another dentist to get rid of it. This one, Dr. Morales, had a real scene going in his office. Plush chairs in the waiting room, which were so comfortable after those damned white plastic chairs at the clinic, and three really beautiful women, hired, I am sure, for their dental expertise. After a wait of an hour or so, because I arrived during siesta, no doubt, I was put in the chair and one of the women examined the twelve teeth I had left. I told her the tooth that had to go and soon one of Morales’ assistants came in, masked and ready to jerk it out. Turned out Hernandez, bless him, had pulled the wrong tooth. Someone reversed the x-ray and he pulled the one on the opposite side, a healthy tooth with no root canal. That’s why I still tested positive for the lead, cobalt, Vanadium, and other toxic chemicals that had been part of the root canal. More Novocaine and it was out and the canal drilled out. I was back in the waiting room forking over another $60. The other extractions cost me $50 apiece. I paid $85 in the U.S. and that was awhile back so I expect you’d pay a hundred today. I got a ride back to the clinic, got the Hyundai, crossed the border with a couple of riders, and hit the sack. Next morning, the pain in my liver was gone! And it stayed gone. That root canal did it. I couldn’t believe it. I kept the hot water bottle handy, expecting that piercing, burning pain to return any moment, but it didn’t. And back in Berkeley, it still hasn’t come back.

            Well, I thought I was finished with the teeth. I was so relieved to be rid of the pain that I walked around the clinic smiling until I saw the doctor that afternoon. I STILL tested for some of the metals and she suggested I go to a specialist in Laguna Niguel to have a final cleaning and make sure all the metals were gone. I really didn’t want to do that. By then I was a basket case with all these dentists and the sore gums and I just wanted to hit the airport and wing it back to Berkeley, but the English women talked me into it and one of them was going to have the same work done so I gave in and drove the 89 miles to Laguna Niguel for the job. A Norwegian dentist scanned my remaining teeth with his Sony and showed me the bits of metal scattered around on them, my legacy from Mathers, the dentist of my childhood who had been sloppy when he filled all the molars. The Norwegian sandblasted them with aluminum and left them sparkling, not a trace of metal anywhere. He gave me the Sony tour at the end and I went out another $200 lighter, but assured that all of the metals were now gone from my mouth.

            I don’t know whether this program I am on is going to do it for me. I have no way of knowing. I feel good this week. The pain is still gone. I’m a lot stronger. I figure as long as I am maintaining my weight and gaining a little, I am on the up side, but I can’t say whether or not I am cured. I think the clinic experience was a positive one. There are a lot of clinics in Mexico and all of them offer good alternatives to American treatment, but the majority are far more expensive than anything I could afford. I had to beg and borrow to get to this one and it used up what I had, but I’m not sorry I went. I’ve got the equipment to test myself and monitor my progress now and in a few months I’ll return to Mexico and have a session with the doctor.



THE FRESNO YEARS: A Memoir by Clay Geerdes

 

I was a junior at San Francisco State College when my new wife started San Francisco City College so she was always a few years behind me during our college years. I finished my MA in 1963 and went to UC Berkeley to study for my doctorate in English literature. She finished her education degree, got a teaching credential, and accepted a contract at a school in Petaluma, California. We were still living in a basement apartment on Foerster Street near City College when she decided she wanted to live in a ‘modern’ apartment. The parents of her best friend lived in a complex near the school where she was teaching so we moved in there. It was a glorified motel with two levels of ‘units’ surrounding a central swimming pool,  but it represented a symbol of success to her and it was as easy for me to commute from UC to Petaluma as it was from San Francisco so I didn’t complain. We didn’t last long in the fish bowl. Turned out most of the people just hid in their ‘units’ and peeked out the window at anyone who had the nerve to use the pool or hang around outside getting some sunshine. My friends grossed out the older tenants and I was even reprimanded by the woman who managed the place, an uptight little twit who stole our cleaning deposit when we left. My friend, Gus, had lost his foot in a car accident, and when he came up to visit me he sat by the pool without his fake leg on. The stump was too much for the inmates.

            San Francisco State was strongly political during my time there. The strongest influences were the Civil Rights Movement and the Cuban Revolution. Those were the years of freedom rides and voter registration drives in the deep south, of Kibbutzim in Israel, and unauthorized trips to Cuba. While my wife was learning how to teach the new math to first graders, I was reading C. Wright Mills and becoming radicalized by the people brought to the campus to speak by SNCC and other organizations. I absorbed everything and I might have gone to Cuba if I had had any money, but I was in college on the GI Bill and my $110 a month barely covered my expenses. Along with part time work at the college and San Francisco, the Bill paid the rent and groceries and an occasional Ingmar Bergman movie at the Surf, very little else. I had no desire to go south. I knew all about it, having an Alabama mother and cousins who lived in Louisiana. My friend, Gus, went to the Selma march and returned to tell me a tale of having his old Caddy busted and himself tossed in the slammer where the redneck guards banged on the door all night and even pissed through the bars in his cell. They called Gus a ‘commie pinko hippie asshole’ and, of course, all the students who came in from the eastern colleges were automatically “outside agitators” and “Yankees.” Alabama is a third world country like Mississippi. When white people try to help black people attain political power in the south, a lot of black people die. Somehow the memoirs of that period, written by white college students who spent a few weeks then returned to their middle-class colleges, fail to list the statistics that show how many black people had their homes and churches burned, how many had their children burned and crippled in the fires, how many vanished without a trace, their bodies buried in some landfill, how many spent their young years on the chain gangs, how many lost their jobs, because they were seen talking to “outside agitators,” and had to leave the land where they grew up and move far away in order to get any kind of work.

            If State was political, UC was State times ten. I spent a lot more time listening to the political speeches on the steps of Sproul Hall than I did working on my dissertation on Thomas Hardy and when the Free Speech Movement took off in October of 1964, my various graduate seminars seemed trivial and meaningless. I finished the dissertation and most of my course work, but I had lost interest. The excitement at UC was at a fever pitch that fall and it was such a bizarre contrast for me to return to the ‘motel’ in Petaluma and listen to my wife gossip about the trivial details of her day teaching kids. She had never come to Cal during the FSM period and we didn’t have a TV so she didn’t even see the news footage. She was totally apolitical and only half-listened when I started to tell her some of the things Mario Savio said in a speech that afternoon, but what happened between us was about money. I had used up my GI Bill and my Navy savings and I was making a little money reading for a couple of profs in the department, but she was now teaching full time and making a good salary so the pressure was on me to get another job and contribute more to the bank account. By early 1965, it was imperative that I get a gig and I lined up several interviews, one at Chico State, another at Fresno City College, and the third at Fresno State. Since I was a promising grad student from prestigious UC, I got offers from two out of three and I might have gotten one from the third if I hadn’t blown it by failing to present a racist profile. Somehow, with the guy from Fresno City, we drifted into a conversation about the Black Panther Party and I said some favorable things about it, not realizing it was a set-up to check out my attitude toward blacks. No cigar. I would have been axed by the other two had the subject come up, but it didn’t. As it was, I became known as a ‘Nigger lover’ by some of the tenured racists in the Fresno State English Department when it was learned that I was using books by James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison in my freshman sections. 1965 was the year of the Watts revolt and the Fresno power structure was determined not to have any of that in their city. For insurance, they recruited most of their additional cops from Alabama and Georgia, because they ‘knew how to handle those people.’

            I got offers from Chico and Fresno and chose Fresno because the drive was easier and shorter. My wife had gone with me to the interviews and I’m sure the Chairman of the Department expected her to relocate with me. A contract could have been arranged for her in a Fresno elementary school, but she didn’t want to move to Fresno and I figured a divorce was down the road, though neither of us mentioned it at the time. By then she was burned out by the voyeurs who watched her every move at the ‘motel’ and we moved back to San Francisco. During the three years I taught at FSC, we lived in Haight-Ashbury, so I was there on the weekends and vacations and in a room in Fresno the rest of the time. I was supposed to be working on finishing up my degree, mainly studying for my language exams, but it didn’t work out that way. I had been in college for seven years since leaving the Navy in 1958 living on very little money. Now I had some money and status and I leased a new car and started to enjoy some of the pleasures I had been denied as a working teenager with a sick father. It was an exciting and bizarre life. I was strongly influenced by all the changes going on in the Bay Area and I brought my enthusiasm back to my students, many of whom hated FSC with a passion because their parents had forced them to go there instead of UC Berkeley or some other urban college. FSC was considered safe during this period of political and racial unrest, the perfect place to protect the kids from those ‘commie profs’ at UC. The students were installed in dorms where they had to sign in and out. Dress codes were enforced, and HUAC [House Un-American Activities Committee] spies monitored the classes of all new teachers to ensure that no Comsymps slid in under the door. There were FBI finks on campus. Anyone with longish hair was suspect, and there I was discussing hippies, psychedelic drugs, pop art, beat poetry, and rock music in my freshman sections. It was not long before budding musicians, artists, poets, happeners, and general rebs were showing up in my classes which spilled over into the commons and often continued into those great evening parties Bill McDonald used to throw at his house on the canal. I’m sure those parents, many of whom are no doubt in rest homes these 32 years later, hated me with a vengeance when they learned what I was exposing their kids to, but I couldn’t help it, folks. Those were the times, and I brought it all back from the city with me, all the underground newspapers, news about Ken Kesey and his travels, rock posters and flyers, weird publications, anything I saw on Haight Street I thought might stimulate a good class session I tossed in the back seat of the Malibu.

            I often went to sessions at the Experimental College at San Francisco State and I picked up a lot of ideas there. One of the things that bothered me about FSC and colleges in general was the way the departments were isolated and segregated. I was interested in all kinds of things that overlapped the disciplines, art, music, poetry, happenings, drama, literature, history, yet all these things were kept separate and it was rare that the teachers from one department associated with those from another. I wanted to desegregate, to link up, to see some literary people in the Drama Department, some artists in the English Department, and the result was pretty good. I made it my business to get to know people in the art department and we pulled some stunts together. My favorite was the junkyard angel film. We just announced we were going to this junkyard one afternoon and for people to make their own costumes and bring along anything they liked. There would be a couple of 8-milimeter cameras as well as some still cameras to record whatever happened. We had a good time with the wrecks on the lot and the high point of the afternoon occurred when a reporter and photographer showed up from the campus paper. They tried to interview me and get intelligent information about what we were doing but they had a hard time because I just told them the truth, that we were just having a good time clowning around and making movie footage. The reporter wanted some deeper, more intellectual meaning, because I was an English teacher, after all, and…

            The protest movement against the war in Viet Nam was smaller at FSC, but it was there. There were vigils and picket lines. I joined the protest against Dow Chemical, the maker of napalm, the jellied gasoline that was being used to kill and main Vietnamese people. I wasn’t arrested, and I don’t know if anyone else was, but Dow is big with agribusiness in Fresno, a town dependent upon crops poisoned with malathion and other deadly chemicals, so I suspect calls went back and forth between the corporate power boys and college admin. It always worked that way. For example, I picked up a little sociological study of Haight-Ashbury called IT’S HAPPENING and I thought it would stimulate some good classroom discussion, so I used it in my next semester freshman sections. A student who had done very little but hang out with his friends and get drunk every weekend all semester complained to his dad about having to read this ‘commie’ book. His dad was a local banker and he called the dean and the dean called the chairman of my department and the chairman called me in to explain. That’s how it works. I told him the student sat in the back of the class and slept most of the time, that he hadn’t read any of the books for the course, including the ‘commie’ one, and he was using his dad’s clout to pass the buck to me. The chairman didn’t give me a hard time, just a mild warning.  After all, what did he care? He knew I wasn’t going to be rehired. I knew it, too. I wasn’t cut out to kiss all that corporate ass and remain in a small town college brainwashing young people.

            Tell you another little story. There were 57 black students at FSC when I was there, most of them on athletic scholarships. The Black Panther Party was small in Fresno, but it was there and the young black guys identified with what their brothers were doing in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. When it was learned that I was using some black books in my classes, I soon had the Panthers enrolled. One class period we were talking about the Black Panther Party and students kept directing their questions at me, so I stopped abruptly and said, “Why are you asking me these things? These men are members of the Black Panther Party. Ask them your questions and they’ll tell you what’s going on with them.” This lead to a good discussion session. I listened and enjoyed it. Remember, there was a great deal of idealism about the Panthers then. No one knew about the gangster-ism until after Huey Newton’s murder and the publication of books like Elaine Brown’s A TASTE OF POWER.

            One thing I always did in my classes was make sure all my students got to know one another before we were very far into the semester. This was particularly important for my freshman classes, since many of these young people were from different towns, strangers away from home for the first time. I did this through grouping. I divided my classes of twenty or so into four groups and had them move their desks into a circle so they faced one another. I gave each of them a subject to discuss and I suggested they introduce themselves and talk a little to warm up, then I went around to each group and sat in for a bit, contributing to the discussion, or just listening if it was going all right. I found that each group quickly developed a student leader and when I found a serious conflict in a group I simply moved a student to another group. Instead of being loners, my students now had four of five people they had met and talked with for forty minutes. When they saw one another on campus, they could visit, hang out, whatever, but they were no longer alone in a strange town at a strange school. Grouping worked well for me. As the weeks passed, loyalty would develop as well as some competition, and I found the members of the group stimulating one another to read the novels, poems, and stories we were working on in class. It’s one thing for a student to have to admit to me in class that he/she hasn’t read the text and isn’t prepared, but when the group is involved it means letting down peers. 

            I organized a social group the second year I was at FSC, naming it the Magic Theater, after the Magic Theater in Hermann Hesse’s STEPPENWOLF. We held poetry and play readings in coffeehouses and social halls, under the watchful eyes of the HUAC spies I am sure, anyway, one evening I set up a poetry reading at a social hall and lined up all the local student poets as well as a few teachers to read. One of the black football players came up to me that afternoon and said he would like to read. I said, Fine, and put him on the list. I knew he was political and I expected he would read a poem critical of the white racist establishment that controlled Fresno, the agribusiness gang, which I’m sure is still in power. The evening went well and I reached his name and introduced him. I am not naming him in this anecdote, because he lives in Richmond and I haven’t seen him for years, but I would not want to embarrass him. At the same time, I can’t not relate the incident, so on we go. I sat down and he took the podium and read not a political poem, but a long graphic description of the pleasure of “eatin’ white pussy.” I watched a wave of rose red pass across that audience. It was not a long poem, though it seemed to go on and on. After he finished, the audience applauded. No one had left and some of the straightest people I knew were sitting in the front rows that night. The poem was not all that unusual; after all, in the wake of beat poetry, particularly Ginsberg’s HOWL, which had been tried for obscenity in 1960, most young poets felt it compulsory to introduce a scatological line or two in at least one poem per reading. Humorous references to masturbation were common and I heard several questionable fart jokes. No, it was the spectacle of a 6 foot 6 inch, 230 pound football player reading in praise of the pleasures of cunnilingus and inter-racial sex that made the evening a memorable experience.

            Black men like the reader here were at FSC on athletic scholarships and I recall getting calls from this or that coach letting me know that this or that athlete should be passed--well, the blacks in my class did fine without that kind of pressure, mainly because I let them write about things that concerned them. I found them quite literate and articulate and well aware of the racist system in which they were trapped. A black football player told me when the team went to Hawaii to play a game; the white players were allowed to have hookers in their rooms while the blacks were restricted to their rooms the entire weekend and could not party.

            Ronald Reagan came to FSC when he was stumping for governor and students filled the Greek theater to listen to him speak. It was Fresno, so he spoke about the ‘farm problem,’ basically telling all the wealthy growers what they wanted to hear. I’m sure none of the students gave a damn about the ‘farm problem’ or any of those crop statistics, and his few remarks about students were reserved for those ‘communist dupes’ at UC and Stanford. Hey, it worked. He was able to parlay parental fear of rebellious college kids into enough votes to get him to Sacramento and later into the White House. Truly, one of history’s most successful liars.

            I lasted three years in Fresno and had a great time. A HUAC spy took one of my classes, the son of a member of the committee. The son later confessed to me and apologized for spying on me. He said I wasn’t a communist. But, hey, I was teaching the books of JOHN STEINBECK, for Chrissakes! Well, I could have told him I wasn’t a commie. I think I was still a registered democrat back then, but I wasn’t all that political. One of the main reasons is I can’t stand all those meetings and I heard enough bickering between the various factions at UC to last me a lifetime. Progressive Labor, The Young Socialists’ League, the Students for a Democratic Society--all had their own agenda and argued endlessly over policy and position statements. See Tom Hayden’s REUNION or David Goines THE FREE SPEECH MOVEMENT if you want the entire rap. I won’t bore you with it here. I did go to a couple of faculty meetings, then never went to another one. I wasn’t destined to survive in organized education. I was a deconditioner, not a conditioner. I wanted my students to think things out for themselves, not to follow. I might have reached a few. I know I have a good radical lawyer to my credit up in Washington. I went to demonstrations and peace marches and I supported causes I believed in, but it was my destiny to write about what was happening for the underground press, not sit around and bicker over this or that policy. I participated in a lot of art and music happenings through my Magic Theater and I got into photography and photographed my first rock concert--CREAM. Maddening. I was too near the amps and went deaf for almost two days. 

            When poet Bob Mezey was getting the treatment for his proletarian hippie image by the suits in the department, Allen Ginsberg came down to FSC to support Bob with a poetry reading [April, 1967]. A TV reporter showed up with a cameraman and a mike was shoved in Allen’s face when he came off the stage after reading. He was asked what his philosophy was. Ginsberg’s reply was to hoist his harmonium and play a mantra for twenty minutes. By the time he finished the TV people were long gone. They played a sound bite on the news and tried to make Allen look like a fool, but he had won easily. He played a dispersal mantra and the TV people dispersed.

            I left Fresno in May of 1967 not knowing what I was going to do next. Turned out a student of mine was transferring to Sonoma State and she said why didn’t I teach there, well, I had heard about Granola State where all the New Age experimentation was going on, but I assumed that was a closed door, that everyone would be applying there. Then I learned that her daddy was a prof there and he had clout. I was hired with no hassles and went on to a new adventure.



ALLEN GINSBERG [1926-1997] by Clay Geerdes

For I sensed that Allen was only, could only be, the vanguard of a much larger thing. All the people who, like me, had hidden and skulked, writing down what they knew for a handful of friends--and even those friends claiming ‘it couldn’t be published’--waiting with only a slight bitterness for a thing to end, for man’s era to draw to a close in a blaze of radiation--all these would now step forward and say their piece. Not many would hear them, but they would, finally, hear each other. I was about to meet by brothers and sisters. 
-Diane DiPrima
Memoirs of a Beatnik, 1988

     Allen Ginsberg would have loved the nasty column George Will wrote about himWill accused Allen of all the things in his life of which he would have been most proud. Allen was a presence. I saw him frequently in the sixties and remembered him from my Navy days when I used to wander around on Grant Street in North Beach. In front of the Greek market one evening, there was Allen’s clear lucid voice: America, I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing. People Felt Ginsberg. He was always out there, a fine raconteur whose voice commanded attention. He could have been a guru a la Lou Gottlieb had he chosen that route, but Allen chose his own path. He was never static, always traveling, always in motion. Writers had a hell of time trying to cram him into an intellectual pigeonhole. He was the ultimate activist/happener. Before you could say he was, he wasn’t. His poetry protested, but it went beyond the clichés of sixties protest songs. Dylan was the short take and his groupies searched his lyrics for ‘the meaning’ just as the Beatlemaniacs looked for leadership and prophecy in the lyrics of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, but Ginsberg was the prophet, the encyclopedist, the all-seeing eye scanning the plastic façade of corporate America and pounding it to shreds in his poetry. Allen couldn’t be written off. The labels the media tried to paste on him blew off in the wind as he chanted a mantra in the vacant faces of the anchor people. They did their best to make him look like a fool on many six o’clock news reports, but we had their sound-bite mentality pegged and we knew Allen was real, not the electronic slaves in their Brooks Brothers suits.  A little row started outside the Peace Eye Bookstore in the Village one day and Ginsberg went out into the middle of the fray and started playing the harmonium Bob Dylan gave him as he chanted a dispersal mantra. Within a few minutes, no one could remember what the fight was all about and everyone was listening to Allen. The incident like everything else Allen did in those days was written up in The East Village OTHER and reprinted in hundreds of underground papers all over the US.

            Why wasn’t Allen poet laureate of the United States? He was, of course, in the hip community, but picture the White House, the old manse, honoring the homosexual Zen Buddhist son of Jewish Communist parents; ah, it boggles the mind. I hear Mother Bloor, Mother Jones, and Emma Goldman dancing and laughing at the very thought of a grinning President Eisenhower welcoming Allen to a reading at the old plantation in Washington. All that impolite obscene poetry--why, the ghost of Martha Washington would lose it in her pantaloons at the very suggestion. Allen terrified the straight world, because he wasn’t afraid. Dylan said Even the President of the United States must some time have to stand naked, but not in public, Bob [you sell-out]--Ginsberg was seen naked in public numerous times. He was always candid. Gore Vidal discussed Allen’s relationship with Jack Kerouac in PALIMPSEST: Allen said, “I used to blow him every now and then…Jack liked company in bed, but he wasn’t all that keen on the sex part--with men. He blew me once to see what it was like. He didn’t like it [218].” Allen asked Vidal what he and Jack did. “Well, I fucked him [218].” A bit later, Allen told Vidal, “Jack was rather proud of the fact that he blew you [232].” On the other hand, Diana DiPrima, describing an orgy in her New York pad which included Jack Kerouac and Allen, said “But Jack was straight, and finding himself in a bed with three faggots and me, he wanted some pussy and decided he was going to get it [MEMOIRS OF A BEATNIK, San Francisco, 1988].” In L. A., Vidal introduced Ginsberg to Norman Mailer. Mailer made a speech, laid down on the floor and went to sleep. Allen put “his bare feet comfortably on Mailer’s paunch.”

            I was disturbed by the information that came from Vidal’s memoir, and I suspect a lot of other men of my generation were, too. Back in the fifties when we were reading about the adventures of Dean Moriarty [Neal Cassidy] in ON THE ROAD, we had an image of Jack and Neal as a couple of young macho studs on the prowl for pussy. To find out that Neal was gay and was living with Allen Ginsberg at the time and that Jack was swinging both ways would have been a terrible shock to all of us and I suspect ON THE ROAD would not have become the cult book it did.

            Beat did not become hip. I get tired of reading shit like that. A label is never adequate to the situation it pretends to define. Beat was poetry/jazz, an intellectual high, a literary infusion; hip was rock and drugs, an all-time intellectual low. Leary and his groupies were anti-intellectuals. Drop acid and get into your own psyche, expand your mind; well, that was fine in the case of someone already well-educated like Allen Ginsberg, but for thousands of unformed teenage minds--Ha! A generation of illiterates came out of hip, as boring a group of conversationalists as ever disgraced a college classroom. During the Beat fifties, I saw people reading all the time, poetry, books, little mags; in Haight-Ashbury runaway kids spent their time stringing beads, drawing chalk pictures on the sidewalks, and banging beer cans to make ‘music’ to share with the angry neighbors.

            The last time I saw Allen Ginsberg was on the steps of Sproul Hall at the 30th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement. He wasn’t looking well that day, but I didn’t realize he was so close to leaving us. I was in my photographer mode and I took a few shots of him. I said, “I was near the stage when you took off your pants during a reading in the Greek Theater at Fresno State back in 1967.”

            “It was hot that day.”

            “It was always hot in Fresno.”

            “Nice seeing you.”

We went our separate ways, unaware that liver cancer would get us both in the end.


GROUPIE by Clay Geerdes

 

I was never a groupie. Even when I was a kid I pissed a lot of adults off by talking to them as equals, not superiors, and those were the days when kids were supposed to be ‘seen and not heard.’ I’m sure this made it difficult for me to find jobs, because I could only keep my mouth shut for just so long then the shit would hit the fan. Some junior manager would harass me for not ‘doing the lettuce right’ at Safeway or not carrying something right or just being me instead of the little bootlicker they wish they had hired. I have a little bit of sympathy for junior managers now because I know they are the guys who do all the major shit work and take all the guff from the senior managers, but to be frank I still don’t have a lot of sympathy for these smiling lifetime sycophants. I was always good at whatever I took on and my speed cost me a lot. If you are hired to do a shit work job and you finish in a third the time the junior manager figured it would take you, you’re in trouble. After all, he probably figured the amount of time the task would take and wrote it on his clipboard, so by polishing it off fast, I was a threat to him. I was just a teenager so I couldn’t be bucking for his job, but what was I up to? What was my game? A studied lack of obsequiousness? That was part of it. I had a hard time keeping a smile going while I was taking some woman’s groceries out to her car and listening to her bitch and moan about something that happened at the check out counter. I was nice up to a point, but the people who laid their gripes on me didn’t get a lot of sympathy. Before very long, they got my two cents worth and promptly ran home to call the manager. They didn’t complain about the clerk they thought had overcharged them three cents on a box of this or that junk food; they complained about my attitude; I was a rude boy for telling a woman if she had a complaint about a cashier, she ought to take it up with the cashier. I couldn’t do anything about it. Huff! Huff! Huff! For 65¢ an hour I was supposed to be everybody’s toady. Next day the junior manager had that smirk on his face, that look of pleasure that always passed through him when he had an excuse to treat an underling like shit; ‘Got to be more polite to the customers, Geerdes. We’re here to serve the public, you know. Always give the customer the benefit of the doubt.’

            Yeah, right, even the kids who stuff candy bars in their pockets and walk out behind their moms with their halos rattling on top of their heads. Hey, the mothers were bad enough. I wasn’t going to go through that with any of their kids. I saw what happened when other shit workers tried to make brownie points by finking to the junior manager about a shoplifting kid. A lot of yelling and embarrassment, that’s what. A mom in denial that her boy would do such a thing and no, you certainly aren’t going to search my boy! I’ll have my husband come down here and give you a talking to! He’s a welder at Cushman. Well, I looked forward to that welder coming down and kicking the junior manager’s ass in the parking lot, but those things never happen. Our customers were always women and old retired men because the rest of the men worked during the day and in those days the store closed at five. It didn’t stay open all night the way some stores do in 1997.

            I’m the oldest child, but I don’t know if that’s the reason I failed at being a groupie. I don’t think I ever thought of being one. I always thought I ought to be judged by the quality of my work, and life just doesn’t work that way. I got satisfaction when I created my own various businesses and worked for myself, but I don’t think I ever fit into someone else’s scheme of things. I was an asset when they left me alone, but when they fucked with me, that was it. I was gone. Hey, I grew up in the forties when individualism was still respected. The managers were doing their best to turn workers into the kind of status-seeking organizational men who would become part of the lonely crowd in the fifties, but my consciousness was formed before that. I read comic books and westerns. I identified with Superman and Silvertip. I read MARTIN EDEN!

            I didn’t change over the years. When I was a reporter for the Los Angeles FREE PRESS, I routinely covered the San Francisco International Film Festival and one of the chores there was to meet the actors and directors in the press room and write some hype for them and their movies. I’d go down there in the evening during the press ‘conferences,’ get some coffee and a roll and stroll around smoozing with the other people in the business, trading gossip, telling stories about this and that, then I’d hang around whoever was sitting at the table plugging a film. But I never asked any of them anything about their films. When I met Gene Hackman the year CISCO PIKE came out, I didn’t even know what film he was in at the festival. I remembered him from BONNIE AND CLYDE and he was friendly. I gave him a BETTY BOOP FAN CLUB button and we spent a few minutes talking about cartoons and animation. When I could see others wanted to break in and bullshit about the movie, I shook hands with Hackman, told him it was nice seeing him, and went on to something else.

            During the Big Show of ‘36, kind of a revival of burlesque that featured a lot of the older stars like Cass Daley and Kay Francis and Jackie “the Kid” Coogan, I hung out in the dressing rooms in the basement of the Orpheum on Market Street the entire week. I had a good time with Coogan. We spent the hour he was making up for his drunken Irishman bit talking about pornography and rock and roll. His son was playing in a band down in Brentwood at the time and he told me he was getting used to the music, but it wasn’t easy. Hippies were still a topic of conversation in 1972 and he asked me some things about them and Haight-Ashbury and that got us into drugs and he admitted that he suspected his kid of having ingested some LSD. I said well, most of the kids around over 12 have taken their share of psychedelic drugs and I assured him he shouldn’t worry about it. Just about everyone I knew was dropping acid at the time and it didn’t seem to be doing them much harm, though it really made them hard to talk to. Acidheads talk to whatever is passing through their own brains at the time and if you are standing there trying to make sense of it, good luck.

            Sally Rand was in that show and I told her I still had some stills of her from the 1939 World’s Fair. I told her my Dad had gone to see her balloon dance and he had the pictures in his trunk. She wasn’t too well that year, but she visited with me for awhile. She had gone to college and gotten a degree in speech therapy and was working with children. That was her main interest and had been for years. Later on, she went onstage and did her balloon dance and in the subdued pink stage light she looked as good as she must have looked years before. She had maintained her figure. She got a lot of applause. Rick Bell tap-danced. The Ink Spots sang some of their oldies and it was a great show. I had a good time with those people. Most of them are dead now.

            I’m always surprised that I have survived this long, because I have never been able to compromise. After the Big Show of ‘36, I wrote a lot of nice material and some of it was supposed to go in the column I was doing monthly for COAST MAGAZINE, but during this time the magazine changed editors and the new honcho was doing the usual, revamping the mag to suit himself, and it’s likely he wanted my space for one of his own people so we got into a beef right away. It was basic age-ism. The people in the show were all OLD and that was not good. You don’t give any ink to OLD people, you just trot out the young bodies and sell product. Most of the folks in the Big Show hadn’t had any ink in so long their press stills were faded. I wanted to do something nice FOR THEM, then I hear this asshole is going to cut it.  He said he still wanted to work with me, but he wanted ‘fresher’ material. I sat there in my room and thought about the letter, then I put a piece of paper in the old portable Underwood and proceeded to shoot myself in the foot once again. I’d done the column for two years for very little money and I wasn’t about to take any shit from this Hollywood prick.  I went after him in my letter and that was the end of that gig.

            Ultimately, I had to take various shit work jobs, because I couldn’t make a living writing. I wasn’t in with any of the high paying East Coast mags and the local papers and mags paid so low I couldn’t even make the rent and groceries. But I was in my forties by then and I had to confront a new problem. I was older than any of the other people in the offices. This meant I could not be a member of ‘the team.’ I was a father figure whether I wanted to be or not. I was too well-educated for this or that and not enough of a specialist for the other. I was too old for entry-level and certainly wasn’t going to be hired at any other level. I had some weird experiences during this low period. I got a gig at a kind of day school replacing someone who was on emergency leave. It was an office gig, answering phones, and doing whatever shit work, Ms. Bigg could dream up for me to do. I worked there over a few days during Christmas and I learned a lot of interesting things. I learned that the secretary who worked the desk I was on didn’t know how to use the new electronic typewriter that had been bought for her and no one else know how to teach her so the machine sat there unused. I learned that Ms. Bigg was using the Mac equipment for her own personal work, taking it home on the weekends, and leaving it unused during the week. In other words, she was not using it to run the school, maintain the enrollment, grad stats, etc. Routinely, she would give me a little stack of things to do and I would do them in a few minutes, then lean back and watch the teachers working with the kids through the glass windows of the office. One time she had me run the enrollment of the school on a spread sheet, so I did this in an hour or so, and added a quick survey of the Mac files to see what else was going on. Nothing to do with the school, but I learned that Ms. Bigg was working with the absent secretary on another daycare center in which they both had a partnership, and they were obviously using school equipment to run that business while paying little attention to the county school they were hired to administer. Ms. Bigg was getting a five figure salary from the county and she was using the county budget to buy equipment that was subsequently used to administer her own school. I was only at the school for a few days and they never called me back to sub for anyone else, not because I blew the whistle on their scam, but because I wasn’t slow enough or properly obsequious. I just didn’t act right. When I learned that the secretary didn’t know how to operate an electronic typewriter that had cost two grand and was there particularly for her to use for student records and labels, etc., I sort of raised my eyebrows a little too high and gave myself away. I didn’t ask, but I certainly wondered why that secretary was still employed there. Obviously, she had some connection to Ms. Bigg that excused her from having to learn her county job. I know all about electronic typewriters and I was using the typewriter the first day I was there. It would store about 64K, enough for short letters, but I was still curious why it was used instead of the SE-30 sitting nearby.

            After awhile, I began to consider myself unemployable. Well, I had always been unemployable because of my intelligence and my attitude. I couldn’t pretend I didn’t know what I knew. I worked for awhile in the office of the downtown center of San Francisco State College on Powell Street while I was a student and most of the time I wasn’t doing work related to the college at all, I was typing and running off the church newsletter for the history professor who was head of the center at the time! I worked for a Toyota distributor in the World Trade Center for awhile and what was this guy doing? He was working on correspondence and details relative to a rest home he owned a big chunk of. I came in at 4, the secretary gave me a stack of stuff to do. She and the boss took off at 5. I did the work in half an hour or so and was sitting around bored by 5:30, but I was getting paid not for the work, but for the time I sat there so I had to wait until the secretary called and released me at 8 o’clock. I think I got $12 bucks for sitting in that stuffy little office for four hours a day. I knew their trip two days after I was there. The secretary was a mousy little women in love with her boss but afraid to say a word about her secret passion. She bought the presents for his kids on her lunch hour and did all kinds of personal shit work for a jerk who didn’t care anymore about her than the air she was standing in. She spoke of him with such reverence I had to look away and read the labels on the parts manuals to keep a straight face. I thought he was a contemptible lying scumbag. Not only was he defrauding Toyota, but he was making money off the misery of age. He never talked about the patients; just about the number of beds that were occupied or about the number of beds they would have when they got a larger facility. Those two were too much for me and as soon as the semester ended, I was gone. 

            Lot of cynicism here, huh? Well, I can’t help that. I consider most of these petty bureaucrats I worked for corporate criminals and I am not ashamed that I chose not to live the way they lived. I could go on and on. My brother worked in a rest home in Nebraska for many years and every home has its vegetables, old folks who are hooked up on life support and just lay there because they have no relatives to okay taking them off support. Ah, but did you know that these vegetables are under the care of doctors and that their doctors stop by and glance at them once a month, then bill the state so much per veggie? The doctor at the home where by brother worked was billing $60 a month for 10 veggies, which amounts to $600 a month and he had veggies stashed in a lot of different homes around the state so imagine his take for doing NOTHING. Think about how hard you have to work to make the payments on your old car, then consider this doctor’s Mercedes paid for by Medicare. When my friend’s father was dying in an L. A. hospital, a doctor slipped in and wrote down a $300 consultation fee. This showed up on the final hospital bill which was over $4,000 for four hours. Why did she raise her eyebrows? Her father was in a COMA the entire time he was in the hospital. Here’s a thief billing for consulting with comatose patients!

            I’ll leave you with one last little story. This one took place in the brokerage firm where I worked one semester. I was in the bond computing room and it was routine for one of the vice presidents of the firm to stop in and check the totals before he left in the late afternoon. There were four desks in the cramped little room and four of us worked there checking the figures on the sales and passing the confirmations over to the keypunchers so they could type up the IBM cards and run them for mailing. Now you can be quietly efficient and work for a business for years and none of the higher-ups will even notice you unless you make an error, but the people who move up are the ones who not only kiss the right boot, but kiss that leather with the right attitude. We had one of those among us and when the boss came in to get the totals he was on his feet and around his desk and smiling through his tanfastic as he complimented the VP on his hat or his vest pocket watch chain or the lack of gravy stains on his pants. We knew the act and anticipated it and it happened every fucking afternoon. The VP would glance at the stock sales totals, give the toady a micro-nod, and leave the office with the trace of a smirk on his face. Tanfastic is probably a VP himself now.

            And I wish him well. I hope he’s enjoyed the endless commutes, the business trips, the board meetings, the relocations for the good of the business, the disappointment of a wife whose husband is never around, the slights, watching some exec’s college grad son move into a slot he thought he was going to get--just think, that happy life could have been mine.

 

MORRIS “MOE” MOSCOWITZ [July 11, 1921-April 1, 1997] by Clay Geerdes

 

When I was doing the research for my biography of Thorne Smith back in 1985, I combed the city for copies of Smith’s books and found very few of them. Ultimately, I had to borrow most of the more obscure and earlier works from the archive at Dartmouth. When I stopped in to ask Moe if he had any of Smith’s books, he said he thought there were a couple down in the Science Fiction Section. Then he added, “who reads Thorne Smith these days?” I said I did, for one, and that lead to one of those short little conversations Moe liked to have with customers while he was shelving books. One of the endearing qualities Moe had was his thorough knowledge of his stock. I think he knew where every book in his store was located and I can’t say that about a lot of other bookstores in Berkeley. Moe didn’t say, let me check the computer; he walked right over to the shelf where the two Smith paperbacks were and pulled them out for me. TOPPER and THE STRAY LAMB. Well, I had both of them, but the conversation was worth the drive up to Telegraph.

            I was often in Moe’s old bookstore during the years I was a grad student at UC. It was a lot more user friendly place than the campus library where you had to climb all those stairs, enter the stacks, climb up and down a lot of other stairs to get from level to level, only to find someone had pulled out the reference book you were looking for and left it in a cartel somewhere. Moe got me in the habit of buying used books, then reselling them to him for a percentage at the end of the semester when I no longer needed them. For awhile, he didn’t even mind some underlining. Since I was majoring in literature, Moe always had the novels I needed. When I was writing my book on Thomas Hardy, he had them all, even some of the earlier ones. Today Moe has neat little carts on which the newly traded used books are stacked until someone gets around to shelving them, but in the sixties

I went down in the basement and there were boxes and boxes of paperbacks all over the floor and I had a ball looking through all that stuff. If Moe was in the store--which was most of the time if he wasn’t smoozing with some radical buddies in the Med across the street--you knew it the minute you walked in the door by the odor of his cigar. You never had to ask an employee where the boss was. All you had to do was follow that noxious odor and you’d find Moe moving boxes of books around. Even after he quit smoking years later, he was easy to find, because Moe was not one to speak softly. If he was talking, he spoke at a volume all his customers and employees could hear. He often lectured a customer or a reporter from the local college paper as he pushed his cart around in the basement and anyone browsing among the remainders could hear everything he said. If he was having trouble with an employee or someone in his family, everyone knew it. Moe’s thoughts and opinions were public; if you happened to be in his store at the right time you heard all about what was bugging him at the time. I heard a reporter ask him one afternoon what he thought about People’s Park and Moe said he was sick of People’s Park. “I don’t want to get into that. Ask me something else.”

            Younger people may not know the extent of Moe’s influence on Berkeley, but Herb Bivins, now a partner in Black Oak Books on Shattuck, learned the trade working for Moe. Moe used to deal records as well as books in the basement of his old store, but he decided to drop the records and concentrate on books. If he had not, the record/CD scene on Telegraph might be very different than it is now. The Reprint Mint was formerly The Print Mint and it began as a couple of tables selling Fillmore and other rock posters inside Moe’s old store. Print Mint did very well at the end of the sixties when the poster scene flourished and It was Moe who put up the money for Don and Alice Schenker to move to another location and expand their business. Bob and Peggy Rita joined them and soon they were publishing underground comic books. It was Moe who put up the money for the Print Mint to reprint Robert Crumb’s first issue of ZAP COMIX. Moe was once fined for selling SNATCH COMIX, a parody of the old eight-pagers by Crumb and S. Clay Wilson. As the years passed, the posters and comix peaked and Alice Schenker decided to focus on imported posters, now one of the mainstays of the Reprint Mint. The Print Mint stopped publishing comix and the rights went to other publishers like Last Gasp Comix in San Francisco. I haven’t kept up with Don and Alice, but I know Bob Rita died of a heart attack in his native Hawaii a couple of years back. He came to Berkeley as an activist supporting Cesar Chavez’ UFWA strike.

            Moe prospered not by overcharging people for old junk books, but by dealing fairly with all of his customers. The only place he charged collector prices was in the Rare Book Room on his fourth floor. The last book I bought from him, two days before his death, was an old 1964 Dell paperback with a cover price of 40¢. It was Brett Halliday’s A REDHEAD FOR MICHAEL SHAYNE. I had read Halliday as a teenager and I wanted to see how well he measured up today. Moe charged me 20¢ and the last words I heard him say were “would you like a bag for that?”

            Moe had a good rapport with his employees and I know most of the people working in his store have been there for a decade or more. I’m sure they were all deeply upset when he finished his day’s work on April 1st of this year and went home to die of a sudden heart attack. Moe grew up in Queens in New York and came to Berkeley in the fifties after trying his hand at an acting career. He was married to Renee and had two daughters, Doris and Katy. Moe Moscowitz was the Bill Graham of the book business and most of his Berkeley competitors set up memorials to him in their windows the day after his death. I stopped in for a moment and the store was strangely quiet, a stillness had spread throughout the new building Moe had been so proud of when it opened some years back; I stood there in the doorway for a few minutes as people paused to read the obituaries from the local papers and look at the photographs of the smiling man with the cigar in his mouth, then I turned and walked toward Dwight Way. Already the street felt different.

            At home, I sat down in my bedroom and glanced around, realizing that most of the books on my shelves, my Chaucer and American Literature, my major reference books, all came from Moe’s. No doubt this is true for most of the older population of Berkeley. People used to go to Moe’s and browse until it was time for the movie to start at Telegraph Repertory Cinema, then after the movies they would stop by Moe’s again before going on to Larry Blake’s or Kip’s for a mid-nite snack. Moe left a fine legacy for us and our community.

            Thanks for being there, Moe.



THE MERRY OLDSMOBILE by Clay Geerdes

 

It was all Theo’s fault, because he bought that new candy apple red 1952 Oldsmobile 88. It was a beauty and when we all punched out at 3:30 and left the Western Electric building to head for the parking lot, Theo Papadopoulos insisted we have a look at his new wheels. He was a short, rotund, humorous Greek who wore sharp clothes and never seemed to have to comb his curly black hair. We admired the car with it’s glossy surfaces and chrome this and that, it’s black leather seats and dash, while Theo grinned, giggled,  and laughed, enjoying the status the car gave him. He was always on the verge of giggling around the guys at work, but he was terminally shy around women. When Geraldine came around the inspect his levels for stripped wire or missed terminals, he could hardly look at her, partly because he knew she had a big boy friend who was never far away, but mostly because he just didn’t know what to say to women. With guys you could talk cars, football pools, or sports in general, but what did you say to girls? Theo never knew.

            One summery Lincoln evening a couple of weeks later, we were sitting around in one of those pea green booth’s at Walgreen’s drinking cokes and eating fries and one of the guys said: “You know, we gotta break in that Olds of Theo’s. I mean look at the little fucker. All he does is cruise up and down O Street. We gotta talk to that guy and get something interesting going.”

            No one disagreed and the next day while we were snapping red and green wires on selectors for telephone systems, we suggested to Theo that we all get together and give his new Olds a real work-out. He was friendly to the idea and during the break we planned a highway run. There would be six of us, including him, and he had given all of us rides before, but this would be the first time we all went on a run together. Riding around with Theo was all right, but it was his new car and his ego and the rider was nobody so there wasn’t that much satisfaction in sitting at KenEddy’s with him chomping a burger and fries while he talked about himself. I’d sit there half-listening while I was checking out the local girls and I knew I couldn’t really get anything going with any of them while Theo was there because if I set him up with someone he wouldn’t be able to deal with her. I had a lot of pity for the guy. He had had dates. When you had the car and the money in Lincoln, you got dates even if you were as wall-eyed as Marty Feldman, but I talked to one of Theo’s dates and she told me he took her to the Starview Drive In to see some movie about zombies on an island and he didn’t touch her or look at her the entire evening except to ask her if she’d like some popcorn or candy from the refreshment stand. When he drove her home, he walked her to the front door, shook her hand, and said, ‘goodnight, I had a very nice evening,’ then left and that was the last she saw of him.

            We all got together the following Friday night and after eating at the Jolly Roger out on 48th Street where my brother, Ken, worked, We cruised O Street, the main drag,  a few times, then headed over the viaduct to West O and the plains beyond. Lincoln is the capital of Nebraska. It sits down in the Southeast corner about a hundred and some miles from the Kansas border in one direction and a hundred or so miles from Iowa in the other. Most of the state is flat which is why the original tribes called it Nebraska or flat land. Spread out around Lincoln are hundreds of small farming towns, each of them with a public square, a handful of small stores that sell food, feed, and farm equipment, and a smattering of houses, usually owned by the same people who own the stores.

            Since most of these cow towns had no theaters or anything else cultural in 1952, many of them rented a movie and showed it with the town’s 16mm projector in the square on Friday nights. The movie was free and farmers and their families from the area trucked in for the evening. It was routine for the wives to bring food in picnic baskets and watch the children in the square while their husbands drifted off to the feed store to play poker in the back room. The younger teenagers drifted out to the edge of the square and hung out with each other rather than watch the movie. Since they lived long distances from one another, this was a time when they could socialize and perhaps do a little courting if they were in that frame of mind.

            I knew this routine. I had been to Denton and Roca and some of the other small towns with my Dad when he was working on  lumber deals, so when Theo was tooling the Olds down West O at maximum speed I saw the sign that said Denton and I said, Hey, Theo, let’s go down to Denton and see some country girls. Theo didn’t care. He was having too good a time getting his ego massaged by the guys telling him how groovy the Olds was and how smooth it rode. In most of the old clunkers I had driven, the body would have vibrated and fallen apart at 70, but we didn’t even feel it in the Olds. Most of our conversation was about gear ratios, glass pack mufflers, and speed traps. We knew where all the cops hid, because we all had tickets for speeding or drag-racing at one time or another.

            We outsider town boys always had the edge with the girls in those country towns, because we had money in our pockets and the farm boys seldom did. Their daddies were tight with a buck, not because they were particularly stingy, but because of their austere lifestyle. They were always deeply in debt to the bank for the feed and supplies they needed to get in a crop and when there was drought or heavy insect infestation and the yield was low or zilch, the farmers had to go to the bankers and beg for loan extensions and more money to get the feed for the next year’s planting. Some of them must have had a little cash money, or those poker games over in the feed store were for matches, but it was never much and their kids saw very little of it. My own dad was a chicken farmer for a while in 1939 and the best I ever got out of him was a 50¢ a week allowance. He bought me things now and then, but most of the time we lived on a tight budget, and ate a hell of a lot of goddamned chickens.

            When we cruised into Denton that night and glided slowly around the town square in that glowing red Olds, we were not greeted with open arms by the locals. I was a little more aware of that than the others, but I’m sure they felt the tension. Squint, Hardy, Barto, and Jimbo were all staring out the windows and commenting about the girls. Theo had his door locked and was driving carefully. He didn’t want to run into any of the people who darted back and forth across the street. I was riding on the right side and I had my window open.

            There was a thin kid with a red UN cap standing on the corner in front of a small table. He was selling hotdogs out of a big pot he had warming on a hotplate, and cold drinks from a garbage can filled with ice.  The hotdogs were two bits and the drinks were a nickel, but I could see he wasn’t doing much business with the locals. I’m sure we were his main customers for the evening and as soon as we got our dogs and drinks we were typed as city boys. Those who had seen the car with its #2 license plate already knew we were from Lincoln. We stood there, ate out dogs, and watched some of the Doris Day movie on the screen twenty or thirty yards away. Two or three young girls wandered over near us and one of them tried to get a conversation going with Theo. I thought Oh Oh, but was surprised to see that Theo was actually talking to her.

            Is that your car?

            Yeah.

            Sure is pretty. Must have cost a lotta money. You must be rich.

            Well, it’s not all paid for yet.

            Y’all from Lincoln?

            Yeah.

            You must have relatives in Denton, huh?

            No, we were just out driving around.

            Boy, I could think of a lot more innerestin’ places to go if I had a car like that.

            Theo grinned, wiping the mustard off his chin with a napkin. Where would you go? he asked.

            Cheese, Keentime. Maybe even dancin’ under the stars at Peony up in Omaha. I’ve always wanted to go up there.

            I finished my dog and handed the kid the Hire’s root beer bottle to put in his box. I wasn’t turned on by the girls who were standing there listening to their friend chat with Theo, so I drifted back a little to see who else was around and I noticed we were getting a few hostile looks from some of the local guys. I didn’t really anticipate any trouble from them, because I knew the parental eye was on them from the area of the picnic tables where the women were watching Doris throw one of her tantrums on screen. Squint gave Bardo an open handed cuff on the arm.

            Do you believe that? Theo making out with a strange girl.

            Yeah, you never know, huh? Maybe it’s Lincoln that’s got the Indian sign on him.

            Hey, guys, I said. That girl’s about 13. She’ll have to wipe that lipstick off before she goes back to Mom tonight. Like those Catholic girls. I used to see them get out of school and as soon as they were around the corner in the grocery store parking lot they’d all be putting on lipstick and powder and shit. Funny, huh? They had to wash it off before they got home, but I guess they got the satisfaction of looking like models for half an hour or so on the way home.

            Girls are strange, man. Look at the hair on that one over there. I bet she’s got a can of spray on it. I went out with a girl with hair like that a couple of weeks ago and when I kissed her all she worried about was getting her hair messed up. Don’t mess up my hair. Don’t mess up my hair. I didn’t even want to get near her hair. That shit stings like hell when it gets in your eyes.

            Tell me about it. There’s a couple of likely lookin’ girls over there. Think we ought to mosey over and say hi?

I think we ought to keep an eye on Theo. I feel kinda responsible for him, you know? He may be gettin’ himself into something he won’t know how to get out of.

            Well, shit, man, you mean we’re just going to hang out and babysit Theo all evening?

            Relax, Squint.  It’s his Olds. It barely holds the six of us. What would be do if we did score some women, go for a walk around the block? Best we could do here is get some phone numbers and you know nobody is gonna drive all the way out here to pick up some girl for a date then have to drive her all the way back home. I made the mistake of dating a girl from the South side once and I didn’t have any wheels so we had to take the bus.  I had to ride the 33 all the way out to her place, get her, ride the next bus into town for the movie, ride the 33 back out to her place afterwards and I missed the last bus and had to walk six miles back to Uni Place. I didn’t get home until after one and Mom was sitting in the kitchen waiting for the report. So don’t think I would get into anything with any of these Denton girls. I live three blocks from Wesleyan College. I’d be dating sorority girls if I had Theo’s Olds.

            Ah, well, what the fuck. Hey, that fucking Old’s is somethin’, idn’t it? I’m gonna have me a meat wagon like that one of these days. Where do you think Theo got the dough for a buggy like that?

            Ah, his mother’s got some money. The family had a restaurant in Omaha before his old man died. She inherited a bundle. She probably paid the down payment for him and covers when he can’t make one of the monthlies. C’mon, let’s drift back over there and ease Theo back on the track.

            I was expecting a bit of conflict getting Theo away from the girl, but the problem was solved for me when one of her younger brothers came and dragged her off. He said they were going home, that their mother wasn’t feeling well. The girl, Angie, wasn’t happy, but she went.

            We got into the car. I was on my guard. I was more streetwise that Theo and the others. I had reason to be. All my childhood, the street had been a threat to me. I had been attacked, beaten up, my lunch money stolen, and whenever I had the chore of going to the store for something, I anticipated trouble around every corner. One day I was riding my bike up Madison and another kid came along and blocked me. He said someone told him I called him a name. I hardly knew the kid, but before I could say anything he punched me in the face and knocked me and a bag of groceries all over the sidewalk. He rode off, leaving me to pick up the mess. That paranoia lasted into my adulthood and I still don’t feel comfortable on the street.

            Well, Theo, how did it go?

            She was nice. I could talk to her. Usually, I get tongue-tied when I meet a girl.

            Did you make a date with her?

No. She lives on a farm a couple of miles from here. I got her address, but she told me to put a girl’s name for a return address if I wrote to her. I don’t know what that’s all about.

            How old is she?

            Hey, not old enough. I know. I got eyes, right?

            Let’s move on, man. Best we hit the road before these farmers start saddling up.

            All right.

            Theo started the Olds. It was quiet. You couldn’t hear the engine.  In my last car, you couldn’t hear anything but the engine. The Olds eased into the street and around the square. Doris was on screen as we passed. Ricky Nelson was singing on the car radio. The gravel road that leads back to West O was moonlit and there was nothing ahead of us, but drainage ditches flanking the road. As a child, I walked those gravel roads and my dad told me the moving shadows made by the moonlight were snakes in the ditches and they would get me if I didn’t stay close to him and behave. Theo was driving slowly because he didn’t want to get a lot of gravel pits on the car or the windshield and suddenly the car lit up and I looked back and saw the bright lights of a vehicle almost on our bumper. Theo sped up a little, but the vehicle stayed right on our tail. I eased the back window down and I could hear some shouting behind us. Squint was staring out the back window, but I knew he couldn’t see anything but a blur. He was called Squint because his eyes were bad and he needed glasses but he didn’t like to wear them because the lenses were thick and the guys made fun of him and called him ‘four eyes.’ Bardo sat in the middle and I looked over his shoulder and made out a pick-up truck with some guys in the cab and a few more in back leaning on top of the cab.

            Theo, I said, I suggest you step on it. It looks like we’ve got some local Denton boys behind us and if they get past you they’re likely to do a lot of damage to us and your new Olds.

            Bardo was looking around under the front seats, when Theo sped up and he was tossed back against the seat. “Nuttin,” he said. “Jesus Christ, Theo, you ought keep a tire iron under the seat, man. If those redneck motherfuckers catch us, they probably got baseball bats or shotguns.”

            “God, Theo, did you have to pick a girl who had fifteen fuckin’ brothers?” Squint chuckled. Theo’s neck was red as a beet and he wasn’t in the mood for light humor. There were a few curves in that Denton road and he nearly went into a cornfield on a couple of them. The pick-up did pretty well until we hit West O. Theody had to slow down a little because there might be some traffic headed for Lincoln at that time of night, but all he did was slow down, glance left, then hit it. Once he was on the highway that Olds took off like the rocket it was named for and we didn’t see any more of those Denton boys. Theo was still spooked though and he cut around Lincoln and went in on 27th. He turned off a side street and waited awhile before he drove on.

            Well, Theo, you may still have your cherry, but the Olds sure lost it tonight. You O.K, pal?

            I think my heart’s still back there on that gravel road tryin’ to catch up.

            We laughed at that, then we just kept on laughing.

            Squint looked at the dash clock. What is it, about eleven?

            Yeah, the movies are out. We could swing by the Jolly Roger and get a burger.

            Yeah, but there’s always more girls at KenEddy’s.

            That’s true. Hey, KenEddy’s it is.

            Buddy Holly was singing ‘That’ll be the day’ on the radio and we were singing along as we cruised into KenEddy’s. We ordered, then we got out to stretch our legs. I walked around to see if I knew anyone. I ducked out of sight of a couple of girls I knew because I remembered I was supposed to call one of them and I hadn’t done it. Charley Morris called me from the window of his customized metallic green ‘51 Chevy and I walked over to see what he was up to. He was alone, so I knew he still hadn’t found a girl, or if he had he took her home early.

            So whaddayou guys been doin’?

            Nothin’.  Cruisin’ around.

            Check out Keentime?

No, I’m not into that. Those fuckers are all rich. They make me uncomfortable. I almost got in a fight out there a few weeks ago. Some drunken frat boys started banging on the old Chevy and I thought they were going to kick the shit out of us.

            Keentime was a dance held on Friday nights at a pavilion out in Antelope Park. It was similar to the open air dances held at Peony Park in Omaha. To fit in you needed the right clothes and a lot of other things. The dances weren’t for working guys like me and Charley, but we often cruised them just to look at the women in their low cut dresses.

            I was surprised I didn’t see you out there on O Street tonight. Charley Arebe was there. He’s got his new dynatones. They sound cool as hell, man, but he knows he can’t take my Chevy. You believe a fuckin’ Plymouth could outrun this baby?

            Well, just don’t go up against Theo’s Olds.

            Shit, I look forward to that. Anytime. You tell him. I’ll tell him when I see him at work Monday. Hey, you wanna little snort? I got a half pink of sloe gin.

            Naw. I’m goin’ home.

            See ya at work.

            We hung out awhile, then Theo dropped us all at home. When I got out in front of the house, Theo looked at me and said, you know, that was fun, Lucky. 

            Yeah, Theo, it was. I had a good time. See you at work, pal.

Yeah. See ya at work.



PORNOGRAPHIC CORRECTNESS AT UC BERKELEY by Clay Geerdes

 

Why not sign up for Women’s Studies 98, The Erotic as Power, three units designed to orient you re the origins of pornography? You can even go on a field trip and picket THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT. This student taught course has been on the UC schedule since 1994. One of the class coordinators, Anna Hsieh, was interviewed recently by the DAILY CALIFORNIAN [2/7/97], and she had some interesting things to say about the way pornography is being seen and interpreted by contemporary feminists. “Feminists in an academic setting see porn as a platform,” she said. File that away for a moment and consider “if students appear to be interested in the course for the wrong reasons, they are dropped.” Another Class Coordinator, Karin Spirn said “stuff by Karen Finley and Annie Sprinkle really stood out. Those two authors illustrate what we want to convey in the class.” Isn’t Karen Finley the performance artist who grossed out her audiences by shoving spaghetti up her ass? I know an abbreviated form of Annie Sprinkle’s current act was shown on Cable’s Real Sex and the highlight of that show is a video tour of Ms. Sprinkle’s genitalia. Holy cervix, Batman, we’re into some heavy stuff here!

            Pornography has always been a man’s game, just like Hollywood movies and tv shows, and the women have always been the stars. You want to see raw lowdown child porn on tv, just look at the footage that has been shown of the little blonde girl who was murdered recently. Has anyone from Geraldo to Rosie missed out on that? Grab any contemporary mag off the newsstand shelf and you’ll have to thumb through dozens of pages of teasy-soft-core porn ads before you get to the copy. Seen a perfume ad lately? A Macy’s ad in the dailies? Pop cult is so inundated with porn these days that most people just yawn over it. You will notice no politician has mentioned it for a number of years, probably not since the New York mafia took control of the industry after the popular success of DEEP THROAT back in 1972. Before that we heard a lot about smut-peddlers and their threat to ‘our nation’s children’ and the rest of that boiler plate every bloody election.

            But I doubt that Women’s Studies 98 is paying much attention to pop magazines. I suspect a re-run of the thesis that pornography is violence against women. Well, some pornography is violence against women, and some isn’t, but all advertising is violence against women and particularly dangerous to their health. Or do you think bulimia and anorexia make for a healthy young woman, that make-up containing toxic carcinogens contributes to a healthy outlook or that skin tight clothes that contribute to yeast and other fungal infections aren’t designed to torture women? Is 98 going to take on the beauty contests? Women being graded like sides of beef, that’s violence against the gender. That’s the point Paul Krassner was making with his HUSTLER cover, the one Gloria Steinem always brings up in her attacks on what she considers pornography. Paul had a collage made of a woman being put through a meat grinder and a pile of hamburger coming out. It was a political statement about the way women are treated by the contests and the ad agencies into which they feed. Krassner’s REALIST is notoriously anti-sexist and anti-racist, and he has always been friendly toward feminism, so he gets in as editor of HUSTLER for a short while and he does what he considers a friendly turn for feminists and Steinem, having no sense of humor, attacks him for it.

            Flynt’s magazines don’t bother me at all. They’re honest and out there, quite often political, openly sexual, never covert. I am bothered by all the television movies I see advertised these days that glorify serial killers and stalkers and rapists. I know if I had children in my family they would be more likely to witness rape and other violent acts against women on television rather than in some random porn movie in a Market Street theater. I agree with Rosie Summers: “Maybe someday women won’t become housewives, and sit in square boxes on square blocks, watching square boxes with pictures of men killing each other…maybe someday heterosexual sex won’t be considered something that a woman does for a man in exchange for money, dinner and wine, or a lifetime job as a housewife. Maybe someday we’ll all treat each other with respect and dignity [SEX WORK, 1987, p. 118.].”

            If you’re online and you want to check out the debate against the women against porn and the women who work in the business, search for Nina Hartley’s web page.

            I think the feminist intellectual at UC who thinks she’s going to ‘empower’ herself by watching and reading what a corrupt establishment has defined as ‘erotica’ is deluding herself. Pornography was legitimized in the early seventies and it’s a multi-billion dollar industry today. It’s not going away. Aspects of that scene are drifting into popular sitcoms. Last night I watched Cybill Shepherd making a lot of silly condom jokes on her valentine show and in one embarrassing scene in a public restaurant she opened a large heart-shaped valentine and explained that it symbolized a woman’s labia. On HBO a few nights ago I watched about ten minutes of Damon Wayans talking to his dick. Well, that was funny. It was funny when I heard Richard Pryor doing the same act back at the Circle Star in San Carlos in 1971 and when I saw Eddie Murphy do it on another HBO special a few years ago. Why don’t white comics talk to their dicks. I don’t know. Maybe Robin Williams hasn’t got anything to say to his.

            Point is, HUSTLER and various other men’s mags have been demonized and it’s easy to say anything you want to about them, put them down in any way you like; meanwhile, you miss the insidious porn that is creeping into everyday life via TV, family mags, and newspapers. Now someone write and tell me when Macy’s runs a full page shot of a model in a pair of panties and a bra, a shot designed to make your average hetero male drool in his morning oatmeal, that’s not pornography; and, I’ll just have to laugh. If they wanted to sell underwear, they could put it on a hanger or on a mannequin. As soon as that live model is there with that carefully chosen look, it’s porn, dear reader, and, actually, more interesting than the embarrassing spread shots in HUSTLER.

            So academic feminists see porn as a platform. A platform for what? And who are the carefully selected folks who get to sit and watch those dirty movies for college credit and do their mommies know? Women’s Studies 98. Clay says check it out and read next week’s letters column.



PUBERTY IN LINCOLN by Clay Geerdes

 

Adults were always watching when I was a teenager. You’d think they didn’t have anything else to do with their time. I hit puberty in Lincoln, Nebraska, around 1948 and started dating girls. Not right away. First I had to give up my comic books and baseball cards and try to figure out what to talk about that would impress the girls. There were no books. Trying to find out anything reasonable about sexual conduct was a joke in that town. You could spin the paperback racks and read a paragraph here and there but you came up with zip in the way of how to do what you felt ready to do. Old Doc Mayo always had his eye on me when I was browsing his soft core stuff, but he didn’t really bug me. I knew his trip. He wasn’t concerned that I might learn something from one of Jack Woodward’s novels; he was worried that I might swipe a book. There were no security systems in those days and I am sure when the drugstore was crowded with after school teenagers slurping lime phosphates at the marble soda fountain more than one paperback went out the door in the back of somebody’s chinos. I never took any of Doc’s sleazo Avon paperbacks. I wasn’t a thief. Had a horrible experience when I was about nine or ten when I pocketed a couple of jawbreakers in a corner store. My mother saw them, wanted to know where I got them, and when I confessed she made me go back to the store and return them with an apology. That was it for me. I felt like a hardcore criminal for weeks after the local street cop, a chubby guy name Jones, gave me a ticket for riding my Schwinn bike on the sidewalk. I got hell from my old man for that. After all, he had to pay the fine. But I had a stronger motive for not taking any of those paperbacks home--my Mom would find them. That would mean hellfire and brimstone and what have I done to deserve a son who would read such trash and, well, it was better for me to skim read Woodward in Mayo’s, then buy an innocent comic book to take home.

            When I started dating, I was condemned to take the bus, because I didn’t have a car and I wasn’t old enough to get a license if I had had one. The routine was set in granite. Girls had to have permission to go on dates; they could only go on Friday or Saturday nights, and they could only stay out so late and no later. The parents were always happy with me because I was clean-cut and polite and I didn’t have a car for them to worry about. I would pick up their carefully coiffed daughter and we would ride the bus downtown, watch a movie, have a sundae, catch the bus, and shake hands at the door while the parents peeked out of the windows. If something developed, we could make out a little on the bus, a little more in the movie, but remember, everyone was trapped in the same routine, so the movies were full on Friday nights and that meant there was no privacy. It was possible to do a little hugging and sneak in a kiss, but forget the other bases. There were always people sitting around who knew who we were and if anything incorrect took place they would be on the phone to our parents and that would be the end of that. I had a strong case on a girl from California in the early fifties and we walked all over Lincoln making out.

            One of the places we could go late at night, keeping in mind that we had to catch the last bus at midnight, was the Greyhound Bus Depot on South 13th. There was a Tillman coffee shop there and a lot of church pew style brown booths in the large waiting room. We drank some coffee, then sat around in one of the out of the way pews where we could neck. We did that pretty regularly during the summer of 1951, then I got a big surprise one day when Mom called me into the kitchen for one of her talks and told me that the juvenile authorities had called her and told her about my ‘improper behavior’ with a girl in the bus depot. To this day I have no idea how those bureaucrats knew who I was or how they got my home telephone number. We weren’t arrested, but we knew we had to avoid the bus depot after that. Which was a drag, because it was closer than the best spot in Lincoln, the steps of the Capitol Building. It was warmer, too. As the winter came on, going anywhere outside became torture.

The Capitol is a big square building with a phallic column in its center. On top of the column is a statue of the Sewer spreading his seeds, a symbol of the Nebraska farmer. Inside there is a lot of the usual historical stuff and people take tours of the place, go up in the tower and look down on everyone the way they do from the arch in St. Louis. At night, the Capitol was dark in the early fifties and the perfect place to go and make out, even if you had a car. The problem with making out in a car was finding a spot that was safe and believe me there were nosy cops with flashlights every-fucking-where. You might think you had found the perfect side street or alley or vacant lot and were getting down to some serious sex then flash! There was some cop at the window. Their routine never changed, those assholes. It was always, all right, what are you kids doin’ out here? Where do you live? Blah! Blah! All the time the light is feeling up your girl friend, checking the buttons on her blouse, looking around for a ready rubber or a beer bottle on the floor. I heard all this stuff from older guys and when I had my old Fords and Chevys I learned first hand what a drag the cops were. Teenagers had no rights. No privacy. Hey, if you were well-to-do like Benjamin in THE GRADUATE, you could swing for an expensive hotel room and have all the privacy you needed, but that wasn’t me. I often went on a date with a buck fifty in my pocket and I had to be careful or suffer a lot of embarrassment. Girls never had to pay for anything.

            There was never any real satisfaction in car sex anyway, certainly not for the girl cramped on the bottom with her head twisted against the door. All she was thinking about was how rumpled up her clothes were getting and how she would explain that and her wrecked hairdo to her Mom.

            In Lincoln, ‘nice’ girls never went past second base; only bad girls did, so most of the guys I knew were trying their hardest to turn their nice girl friends into bad girls. Nearly all dates ended in frustration, and many virginal boys began to assume that girls had no sexual desires because those they dated always said no and fought off their attempts to make sexual contact. A lot of boys only learned much later that their girl friends fought to keep them out of their blouses because there wasn’t anything there. This was the era of falsies, of bust pads or pointed rubber cups that filled out brassieres. Some of the girls around Northeast High could have fallen down and bounced right back up. Girdles were also the rage. Those rubber chastity belts were the mothers’ best friend, because no guy could get one of those things off in the back seat of a car. Of course a crafty girl could put one on so her mother could see it, then quietly slip it off before going out. Guys would think what’s the matter with her? Doesn’t she want it, too? Well, she had to think about getting pregnant, but who cared about pregnancy when the hormones were raging? Girls would say Boys are only interested in one thing, and the boys couldn’t understand why the girls weren’t interested in the same thing. Well, girls were interested in romance, and teenaged boys just wanted to get laid. Their idea of romance was to say something like you really look beautiful, baby, then down the old blouse and up the skirt.

            High school hygiene class answered a lot of questions that weren’t asked, and very few that were. My teacher was an Amazon, a woman over six feet tall with a body that would have inspired Crumb to draw another comic book. She often wore a tight purple dress to class. The classes were segregated by gender, so the guys had a period with her, then the girls had one. None of the guys asked her anything.  We didn’t feel comfortable asking a woman the things we wanted to know, I knew from personal experience. I once asked my mother what ‘fuck’ meant and instead of answering my question she read me the riot act about where I had heard that ‘filthy language’ and told me if I ever said it around her again she would wash my mouth out with soap. I don’t think anyone ever cut that hygiene class, but all we did was sit quietly and drool while the teacher drew pictures of uteruses and fallopian tubes on the blackboard. We watched the cornball movies with their diagrams and medical terms, and we strolled out after class with our hands in our pockets. We all got good grades. She even told us how well-behaved we were.

            There was some sexual stimulation in the movies we went to, but nothing like the over-emphasis prevalent today. I was always turned on by the dance sequences in the musicals. Fred Astaire would spin Cyd Charisse around and give the audience a flash of her panties. That was hot. The dancers in CAROUSEL and OKLAHOMA were erotic, but we didn’t have to deal with the constant stimulus of weekly tv shows like BAYWATCH [I call it Bunwatch] and BEVERLY HILLS 90210. We saw a musical once a month if that often. I was 22 when Marilyn Monroe’s career took off in NIAGARA. I was 27 when the pill changed the sexual climate.

            By the time I was in my thirties, pornography was all over the Bay Area and there were groups like the Sexual Freedom League advertising in the Berkeley BARB. A guy named Jefferson Fuck Poland even had sex with a woman on the lawn at San Francisco State College. People were dancing naked at Be-ins and Love-ins in Golden Gate Park. With the birth control pill of 1961, having sex with casual acquaintances or strangers became something of an initiation rite. With AIDS, we came full circle. Today people are antsy about having sex until they make sure their partner has tested safe. Life was much simpler for me in 1948. I sat on the Capitol steps necking with my girl friend, saying cornball things, and making plans for a future that would turn out radically different than anything I could have imagined. All I had to think about was when the guard would pass by and that was seldom. He knew there was nothing going on out there so why leave his paperback book? Today, they probably have closed-circuit tv watching all the entrances and steps like everyplace else, but when I see that phallic tower from the air as I head into Lincoln for a family visit, I always think of the girls who hung out there with me and helped or hindered me on my painful path through puberty.



SAN FRANCISCO SCENES: 1970-73 by Clay Geerdes

 

I’ve never felt effective as a fiction writer, because very little of my life experience has been ‘normal’ or ‘conventional’ and comprehensive fiction always has a normal or conventional aspect even when it is cast in the realm of science-fiction or fantasy. I didn’t graduate from high school, go to college, teach, climb the ladder from instructor to dean, retire emeritus, write a sedate memoir, lecture, and politely die. I did some of those things, but not in the normal fashion. I finished high school at night and did not attend college until after a four year hitch in the Navy. I taught, but had no interest in publishing academic articles just for the sake of publishing; hence I would not have been promoted up the ladder even if I had sought promotion. I went through several careers, some of them simultaneous, and I wrote in a variety of styles, most of them repulsive to and rejected by established publications. I was always more likely to express the profane rather than the sacred in my prose and I was unwilling to compromise. An editor changed my lead paragraph one time, destroying what I had designed as an extended metaphor, and I called him every name in the book. I was young and passionate then. I mellowed a bit over the years.

            After I received my final check from the state and felt free of the yoke of teaching, I sat down on top of the Indian Rock in the Berkeley hills and looked into the distance, seeing the same view the Ohlone Indians had seen in the thousands of years they lived in the area. Of course, there were a couple of bridges and a lot of buildings there now, but the Bay was the same. So were the hills of Marin County. I was living in a garage room just half a block away and sitting on the Rock was a routine of mine. There were always a few tourists around in the daytime but at early evening it was a spot favored by people who liked to smoke a joint and watch the sunset. I moved to Indian Rock Park after separating from my wife in August of 1970. To her, I had become the total Berkeley hippie, even though I was still teaching at Sonoma State College at the time. To me, she had simply moved in another direction, and I wished her well. I was an emotional wreck that year, but it wasn’t our separation that caused it. It was a passionate love affair I had with a woman who suddenly cut me loose, giving me the I need my own space to do my own thing  rap. I went nuts over this woman. I was fixated on her VW bus. Whenever I saw it around town, I would follow it and try to talk to her, but she wouldn’t talk to me. For her it was over. I was the one with the problem. I should go to the rap center at the Free Clinic and get psyched out. I walked around like a zombie, sat in coffee shops drinking cup after cup, writing notes in little red notebooks for articles and stories I couldn’t force myself to write when I got back to my room shortly after midnight. I couldn’t stay in my room, because I kept waiting for her to come through the door. By the end of the year, I was running out of money and I knew I had to get it together and do something. I saw an ad in the classifieds of the Berkeley BARB announcing an upcoming Erotic Film Festival and I knew there would be a lot of interest in such a happening, meaning I knew I could sell articles to several magazines and papers if I could get my ass off Indian Rock and over to the City to check it out.

            The Festival was the first of its kind and was inspired by a Pornography Fair which was held in Denmark. Russ Meyer had made a documentary of that fair entitled PORNOGRAPHY IN DENMARK. It was shown uncut at the Presidio Theater in San Francisco and it wasn’t busted. This was the first time hardcore pornography appeared on a public screen in the city. Before that, sex films had been limited to partial nudity and a lot of tease. The Festival was being promoted by Arlene Elster and Lowell Pickett at the Sutter Cinema, an interesting upstairs theater on a street infested with art galleries and expensive gift shops. In the 1930s, Sutter Cinema was Charley Low’s Forbidden City and the secret passageway was still there, the one that lead to a hidden room where a select clientele could play Fan Tan and smoke opium. The late underground cartoonist, Roger Brand, was sitting in the anteroom when I got to Sutter Cinema that day. He had been drawing ads for the theater, little sex fantasies entitled SUTTER FOLLIES. Arlene led the way for Roger and me and soon we were down in the depths of the building somewhere passing a joint around as we discussed the upcoming festival. I listened. I was the novice. I hadn’t even met Jim and Art Mitchell at that time. I knew there were underground movies playing at the Presidio, but I had yet to go out there. Roger and I got on well and he invited me out to his house in Point Richmond where he introduced me to Justin Green and Joel Beck and got me involved in writing about underground comix. I put together a collection of items, sold a monthly column to COAST MAGAZINE, and I was off and running. In the following months, I wrote dozens of articles and stories and through my column I met a lot of the people who were happening around San Francisco. I had wanted a column for a long time. Since the mid-fifties, I had read Herb Caen in the CHRONICLE, and during the sixties I followed the progress of Bay Area bands in Ralph Gleason’s column. I had a lot of verbal battles with Charles McCabe and he ran a long letter of mine as one of his columns in 1967. We were arguing about hippies and I think I was pro in the sense that he was referring to all the teenaged runaways as hippies and I said I thought it was more significant to ask why these affluent kids had run away from their suburban homes. I wanted to know what was wrong with the parents that the kids couldn’t wait to get away from them. I knew the answer, but I probably couched it in some intellectual frame. Truth was, no parent was going to let his son or daughter take drugs and have unrestricted [or any other kind of] sex and parents hated rock and roll music in pre-walkman and headphone period. The kids who ran away to Haight-Ashbury did or tried to do all of the above all of the time.

            A column was useful to a writer out to make a reputation. I went through all the neighborhoods, stopped in boutiques, delis, novelty shops, and I talked to everyone. I left my card and when I saw something unusual I suggested we do a photo and small item. It was all promo and I saved my serious stuff for FREEP or the Berkeley BARB, but I sent copies around. For a long time I had sent items, photos, and cartoons to Herb Caen, and I have some memos from him. It was ironic that his obit was to appear in what he always called “that other paper” when he died Saturday morning, February 1, 1997. Herb died after the CHRONICLE deadline and the EXAMINER reported his passing in the afternoon paper. Just as Caen was inspired by Walter Winchell, I was inspired by him. I knew I’d never get a column in a straight paper, because I didn’t come out of a journalism department and do the time, so I had to find somewhere else to plant the column and the editor of COAST and I found each other. He needed someone to cover the Bay Area and I needed the clout of a column to make the contacts I wanted to make. The pay was insulting, but I would have done it gratis.

            Ralph Gleason was one of the first people in the straight press to write about all the counter cultural things that were happening in had begun to be known as ‘the hip community’ of the Bay Area. Through his entertainment column in the CHRONICLE, people found out what was playing at the Fillmore and Avalon and what time the free concert would start in Golden Gate Park on the weekend. Gleason started out as a jazz critic when jazz/poetry dominated the post-WW2 Beat scene in North Beach, then he got close to the Jefferson Airplane and other acid-rock backs and was soon hyping Bay Area music in his column regularly. He left the CHRONICLE in the early seventies to work for Fantasy Records in Berkeley and I thought it might be fun to get together with him and work out an interview. We did it at KFFA in Berkeley at the old Shattuck studio, but it was a bust. For some reason, he wasn’t in the mood and he stonewalled me. I expected him to reminisce and carry the ball, but he decided to attack me and put me down for my lack of knowledge of jazz. He was having that kind of day and when I said something about John Wasserman taking over his column, he said: “He didn’t take over my column. He’s just writing in the space I used to use.” Well, that was true. What I should have done was terminate the session, just said ‘This isn’t working for us,’ and split, but I left the ball in his court and he chose to torture me awhile before terminating the session himself. I was pissed at him for awhile after that, but I shrugged it off as a learning experience. I had worse experiences with professional egos as the years passed. During Wasserman’s run at the CHRONICLE, I saw him all the time, because we were covering the same events, but he never spoke to me. More ego. I used to pass the time of day with Stanley Eichelbaum when we were waiting for intermission to be over at the Fox or Geary. He always had some good stories to tell. He told me about a swing ranch over in Pleasanton, but I never got around to doing a story on it until about ten years later. All I remember about that was my friend grinning as we were offered a glass of strawberry Kool-aid and shown a ‘playroom’ with a floor covered by mattresses.

             I made the best money writing about the sex scene. I was lousy at writing sex fiction and I tried pornography but couldn’t get past a couple of chapters. Porn is about people who are nothing but their sexual activities. I’d write a few descriptive scenes, then realize I still had a hundred and fifty pages to go and that was it for me. I was too bored to go on. I can’t even watch an entire sex film. Everybody fucks until they’re blue in the face and the doorbell rings and two more couples come in and everything starts all over--Oy, gimme a break. You would be surprised, but a lot of the porn novels are written by women. A woman underground cartoonist I knew made a good living this way. She got $1,000 a book and she could turn them out pretty fast. I always admired her patience.

            I loved the lobby scenes. I went to the Presidio around 11:30 on Saturday nights, caught a few minutes of the tail end of DEEP THROAT which ran forever [it was even shown in the Nixon White House.], hung around with people in the lobby, many of them journalists like me, just moving around from scene to scene, and sat through endless hours of boredom as Underground Cinema 12 showed the stuff of Warhol, Van Meter, Anger and others. At the O’Farrell, I met Deb who told me about the Nickelettes, her feminist theater company. They did parodies of the old movies Jim and Art were showed for the street people on Tuesday evenings. Those shows cost a nickel, so the women called themselves Nickelettes. I became good friends with them and hung out in their dressing room when they performed at the Intersection Coffeehouse, an old church on Union in North Beach. When I did the promo for the World’s First Underground Comic Convention in April of 1973, the Nicks performed a parody of comic strip heroines like Blondie, Minnie Mouse, Sheena, S. Clay Wilson’s Ruby the Dyke, and Crumb’s Angelfood McSpade. One of their best shows was the Ms. Hysterical Contest where they destroyed the slick veneer of the beauty pageants. One of the contestants was Miss Peaches and Cum, another was Tricia Nixon Dickscocks, and all of the lines were scatological and funny. Deb worked at the O’Farrell doing the ad paste-up and I routinely stopped by there to bullshit with her and get the latest stills. Sometimes I visited with Art Mitchell in his office. He was always friendly to me. He had a baby alligator in an aquarium and he liked to gross-out visitors by tossing goldfish to the gator while he talked. That gator would be as still as death, then when that goldfish flashed through the air--Snap! He got the fish at Woolworth’s on Powell and Market, a major scene in itself what with Cockettes, Nickelettes, and other theater people strolling the aisles to find doodads for their costumes.

            One scene lead to another. I met a nurse at the Erotic Film Festival and she needed some money so we did a layout for ADAM MAGAZINE. She turned me on to a dancer at the Galaxy on the Broadway strip so I stopped in there and we wound up doing another layout. During the time I was working out the script for that one, I was in and out of the dressing room talking to Gigi about one thing or another and there were five or six women in the room, all of them naked. Someone was dancing onstage all the time during the evening hours and the dancers rotated. In some of the clubs they rotated between serving cocktails and dancing, 20 minutes onstage, 20 to rest, then 20 minutes on the floor. All they wore on the floor was a little apron. I was cool. I acted like I was in a room full of naked women every day. Old hat. Actually, the funniest experience I had in that line was when I did the photos for a spread on one of the Lifestyle cons at the airport Holiday Inn. I was in the ballroom and there must have been over two hundred people in there for a massage workshop. I was standing there when the leader came in and told everyone to get undressed. In a few moments I was standing there in a room full of naked people and me with a camera hanging around my neck. The honcho told me not to take any pictures. I said okay and walked out into the air. It was already getting pretty ripe in there with all that sweat. That was a trip, that Lifestyles con. A lot of those therapy hustlers were involved in lawsuits with each other and their clients. The honcho at this one was going on about the media [which included me] and it was clear he was bugged because some mag had given him some bad press the previous season. Well, I’m never passive. I went up and wanted the mike so I could reply. He handed it to me and I explained to the customers that I just shot the film and turned in the hype sheets. The editor decided what photos to use and what the captions would be and the art department did the layout. If anyone had a beef with the publicity, they ought to talk to the people responsible and stop taking it out on the working photographers. I didn’t get a lot of sympathy, but I felt better. Good thing I didn’t write the text for that one, because it would have been on a par with one of Harvey Kurtzman’s LITTLE ANNIE FANNY strips for PLAYBOY.

            Arthur Meyer was promoting THE RISE AND FALL OF THE WORLD AS SEEN FROM A SEXUAL POSITION, a movie he produced that had a sequence with Carol Doda in it and he called me and wanted me to hype the film so I met with him and told him I really ought to have a session with Carol so I would have my own pictures [because that’s the way you make a living in the biz] so he said fine and he set it up at his beach house. Carol was game for all kinds of stunts. Her agent, the late Davey Rosenberg, used to have her doing all kinds of things to get her name in the paper and keep her show at the Condor in North Beach popular. One day she was streaking on the Marina, the next she was popping her top on the roof of a theater in San Jose. It was Davey who suggested she put on Rudi Gernreich’s topless bathing suit and dance in it back in June of 1964. She did and the dancing developed into a career for her. Carol worked hard. I was in her dressing room one evening. We talked while she made up for the show. It took her three hours to put on all the body make-up and get ready for her ride down on the white piano. She had several costume changes during the act. She lip-synched Shirley Temple’s Good Ship Lollipop and Carmen Miranda’s La Cucaracha. Carol came over to the opening ceremonies for our Underground Comix Convention and later we did a surprise visit to Rip Off Press where she posed in some Dealer McDope and Freak Brothers t-shirts. I loved linking people up in those days. When we did the shoot at Meyer’s beach house I had some copies of ZAP COMIX with me and the shot of Carol looking at the cover of ZAP ran in several publications. Dave Sheridan, who often hung out at Intersection, wanted to paint Carol’s body in the window of a Grant Street Coffeehouse, but we never got that together. Dave died of cancer in 1982. The Nickelettes crashed Carol’s show at the Condor one night at midnight. They went up onstage and did one of their dance numbers, all wearing Girl Scout uniforms and the fake plastic tits sold in paraphernalia shops along Broadway or Polk Street. During the number, they smashed a tit with a fist. Carol thought it was great. Deb had one of those yellow Volkswagens with a Rolls Royce radiator and when the opera opened she got together with a couple of the other Nicks and made the scene. They had their pictures taken with the opening nighters. All the opera hoi polloi were decked out in tuxes, black dresses and pearls, but the Nicks wore sexy dresses, fake furs, and Boas from Woolworth’s. Deb was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. There was a scene there. I went to the opening of her showing of some ceramic dresses with the tits on the outside. We lost track of one another when she moved back to Beverly Hills, but I did get down to see her one time. We went slumming on Rodeo Drive. I never saw anything I could afford. Deb had a white t-bird then. She later married and had a successful accessories shop. A good pal.

            One of the Nicks was ushering at the San Francisco Film Festival that year and I always covered that event, sat through an endless stream of now forgotten movies, wrote miles of hype, yawned a lot, slept in the press section, and got some interesting photos of people like Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, Francis Ford Coppola, and Gene Hackman. I even got a shot of old Jack Warner who was more bored than I was. Someone asked him who the blonde with him was and he said, “I dunno. Some broad they sent over.” I liked the film festival, but I couldn’t take all that stuff seriously. I liked to hang out with Bonnie and gossip. She was stationed near the press section so we would talk about the Nicks or the North Beach scene. Bonnie worked her way through nursing school and got her RN. She was in the sex business. She did movies and modeling.  She considered herself a feminist, said she had a right to use her body any way she liked, and sex work was a lot easier and faster than sitting around in some office all day for four bucks an hour. She had heard that sex work was different on the east coast where the business was controlled by the mafia, but she hadn’t worked out there so she didn’t know one way or the other. Like most of the people I met in those days, Bon was just gone one day. She had finished her degree and left the area. I got a call early last year from a friend telling me she had died of cancer.

            So many scenes going all at once. I ran myself ragged in those days. I took several rolls of film a day and when I got back to the room late at night I souped the negs and hung them up, wrote my copy on the old portable Underwood that had gotten me through college, then picked out the shots I liked and printed them. I always had everything stamped and ready to mail the next morning. And I always chose my photos. I never sent in proof sheets and let the editors chose. I usually got to be friends with the people I wrote about and I wanted them to look good in the mags. My editors didn’t know them and I couldn’t trust their choices. In cases where I had to send proof sheets, I just blacked out pictures I didn’t want to see printed and said they were out of focus. After I phased out my darkroom, I just sent in the rolls of film and forgot about it. My eyes had started to go a bit and I knew it would not be long before I had to find something to replace the photography. It was a real drag checking a print on the easel through reading glasses. As Camus said, nothing lasts.

            This period of my life came to an abrupt end in mid-February of 1973. I had eaten at Little Joe’s on Columbus and I was hurrying along in the drizzle. I was due to photograph Divine in the Cockette show DIVINE SAVES THE WORLD. As I crossed Union Street near Washington Square, a taxi sped around the corner and clipped me on the right side. I heard the bump as it hit me and I whirled around and fell on my butt in the rain. I had my cameras under my raincoat but the impact knocked my strobe loose and it sailed off somewhere never to be seen by me again. I didn’t lose consciousness, but I could feel it coming and I had to think fast. It was certain that none of the people gawking at me in front of the liquor store were going to do anything and the cab driver was leaning over me in a state of shock so I told him to get me into the cab out of the rain and take me to the nearest emergency hospital. He did. That was Harbor. He got me into the emergency room and no one would do anything for me because I didn’t have any medical insurance. The duty nurses gave me a couple of pink aspirins and a cup of water. That was that. I could die right there for all those assholes cared. An older cop talked to me. He was nice, reassuring. A guy from the taxi company came in and offered me a couple of hundred dollars if I would sign a release. I told him I couldn’t sign anything. I had no idea how bad I was hurt. He would have to get back to me in a few days. My back was hurting and my right knee was swelling up like a basketball. I made two calls, the first to my ex-wife who had just gotten in from a party and was too drunk to help me. She suggested I call one of my girl friends. Well, I was still carrying a torch for the woman who dumped me for a college ecology course and I knew she wasn’t going to talk to me if I did call her. I called another woman I had become close friends with only to find she couldn’t come and get me because she was in bed with a friend of mine. I gave it up. I got up, limped out the door, made my way through the rain back to my Opel, got in, started up, and drove across the bridge to Berkeley where I stopped at the Free Clinic. A medic put an ice pack on my knee and sat with me. He told me some of his troubles and consoled me about mine, all the time being very gentle with me, reassuring me that I wasn’t badly injured. After I had been there a while, he asked me if I wanted him to drive me home and I said I could make it. Back in my room, I didn’t have any pain killer, but I knew the best muscle relaxer was good old marijuana and I rolled up a joint and smoked it. As I was drifting off to sleep, it came to me that another period of my life had ended. I wouldn’t be able to do any photography for awhile and that meant I would lose the continuity with all my magazine and newspaper editors. I would also lose touch with the theater scene. My COAST column had already ended because a new editor had taken over the mag and he told me there would be changes in my column and I said there wouldn’t be any unless someone else made them. I knew it was over, because he probably wanted to put a friend in the space, so I just gave it up. John Bryan had started his San Francisco PHOENIX by then and I just shifted the things I was writing over to his publication. I always liked John on a personal level, but he had editing in his blood, and he couldn’t leave another writer’s prose alone. He had worked at the EXAMINER and it stayed with him. He rewrote everything, which meant if I had anything I was really touchy about I had to keep it out of John’s hands.

            Someone told me about a legal firm that took personal injury cases and I called them and filed suit against the cab company. This was a waste of time and I wouldn’t do it again. The driver lost his gig and, after four years of diddling around with a cab company that had filed for bankruptcy; I got my share of the settlement, a little over $600. I healed up and bounced back, but I was through with the North Beach scene. It’s a different world there now in 1997. I was out there a few months ago and I didn’t recognize much of anything. I felt like a ghost until I got down in the basement of City Lights and realized that some things just never change.

            Lawrence Ferlinghetti is getting a little gray, but then, so am I.



THE SONOMA YEARS: A Memoir by Clay Geerdes

 

I was able to teach standard English courses in Fresno, but this was impossible at Sonoma State College when I arrived there in the Fall of 1968. I had my share of drunks and druggies at FSC, but everything was different at Granola State, mainly because of the orientation. I had the same basic classes I had had at FSC: a couple of freshman sections, an Intro to Lit, and an advanced American Lit class, but student response to anything written was beyond apathy. The majority of the Sonoma students were into new age trips and drugs--all kinds of psychedelic drugs from LSD to psilocybin. There was drug experimentation in some of the psychology classes and there were touchy-feely workshops on the weekends [all of them sold out]. My Fresno acidheads saved up their acid and grass for weekend parties, which started Friday evening and ended in the wee hours of Monday morning, but the heads in my Sonoma classes were stoned all the time. After one eight o’clock lecture, a longhaired photographer came up to me, grinning from sideburn to sideburn, and said, ‘Hey, man, I really dug your lecture. I don’t know what you were talking about, but you looked great.’ One young woman who really ‘wasn’t into essays and shit like that’ asked if she might not write some folk songs for credit in the course. I often saw her sitting out on the artificial island behind the Commons strumming her guitar and singing for a group of friends as a joint make the rounds. Some teachers held classes out there on the island and the entire class bonded with a passed joint. During every noon hour, the campus partied around the Commons. There were speakers or poets some days and on Fridays a band like the local Bronze Hog provided the rock music so people could dance on the lawn. One noon hour would feature Jerry Rubin advising the students to burn down the college and start over, while another would feature Rabbi Schlomo Carlebach playing and singing while people folk danced their way around the terrace of the Commons.

            Sonoma State College is located in Rohnert Park, but the action was always in nearby Cotati, California, mainly in or around the Inn of the Beginning. Rohnert Park was considered conservative and straight, more like a large mall than a town. SSC was a country campus, just a few concrete buildings in the middle of a large field adjacent to Rohnert Park High School. It’s still there today, but surrounded by more buildings and suburban condos and mini-malls. If you drive over there in January of 1997, you’ll see there are two artificial lakes and a lot of nice landscape gardening has been done. The trees that were planted when I was there are now grown and the campus is more of a grove than it was. Roads that were unpaved then are paved now. Where there were no sidewalks, there are now sidewalks and roadside businesses. Students hitch rides down to Cotati or they just walk, but the population of the town is still made up mostly of students. When I was there, Cotati was hip, while Rohnert Park was straight. The Inn featured many of the same bands that performed around Haight-Ashbury and it was crowded most nights. The main coffeehouse was The Last Hiding Place where movies were shown in the back room some evenings. Drinkers went to the Eight-Ball, a bar near the town square. Bikers often stopped in there on the way to or from the Russian River. The older hippies seen about the streets were groupies who had followed Vito from Los Angeles. Cotati was never quite the same after Vito moved in and bought his house on El Rancho. In L. A., he had a sculpture studio on Laurel where he and his wife, Szu, known to the customers of her boutique as Suzi Creamcheese, hosted many interesting parties. Vito was a dancer and he choreographed the dancers that accompanied many of the early gigs of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. Vito and Szu came to the noon hour festivities at SSC, which is where I met them for the first time. He told me the L. A. scene, which had been mellow for awhile, had begun to shift toward violence and hard drugs and he left because he didn’t want to raise his children in that atmosphere. It was only a short while before people began to follow Vito to Cotati and it was not long before he began to change the community in various ways. He built the bandstand in the park so there would be free concerts there. Later, he built the bus shelter and in the early eighties he sculpted the statue of Chief Cotati which stands in the city square near the old Redwood Highway which passes through the center of town. At SSC, Vito taught an improvisational dance class, and he acted in some of the campus plays. In the mid-seventies, he developed a vaudeville show in the back room of the Hiding Place and developed into the Free Store Theatre Company which performed all over the Bay Area during 1976-77. I had quit teaching by l972, was divorced, and lived in Berkeley, but I had become friends with Vito and Szu and I often drove to Cotati to hang out with them, so when Vito had the Free Store in shape he asked me to do the photography and publicity which I did.

            In 1969, I was wearing several hats. I was teaching my courses at SSC, covering local demonstrations and college strikes for the Los Angeles FREE PRESS [FREEP], and keeping a photographic record of everything. Opposition to the illegal, undeclared war being stage-managed by Richard Nixon in Viet Nam had grown stronger and stronger since the formation of the Viet Nam Day Committee in 1965. Civil Rights struggles had drifted past white liberalism and paternalism into Black Power and ultimately into Black Liberation and the influence of the Black Panther Party had begun to manifest itself through student political activity in the late sixties. By 1969, a coalition of third world student organizations, comprising Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans, had become The Third World Liberation Front [TWLF] and this group went on strike at San Francisco State and UCB that year, prompting Governor Ronald Reagan to declare a State of Emergency, which effectively put Alameda County Sheriff Frank Madigan in control of Berkeley. The college administrations, conservative by design and by nature, did not know what to do. They were accustomed to telling students what to do, not listening to their ‘demands.’ The media, of course, action-oriented as it is, played up violence, seldom giving equal coverage to the teach-ins and other activities that went on during this period. By bringing armed cops on campus, Reagan had already voted in favor of violence and brute force. For those of you who may not understand all of this, I will remind you that the UC campus had its own police force, which was and should have remained unarmed. When city, county, and state cops [highway patrolmen] were brought on the campus, fully armed, all the students were upset, because this was considered a violation of the order of things. The campus was supposed to take care of its own problems and police were only called in case of emergency. The police presence at San Francisco State and UC radicalized not just fence-sitting students but many older members of the community who got caught in the crossfire. The police are a paramilitary organization. They are given orders and they execute them. They do not act alone or individually, but as a squad or platoon, and when they are told to clear an area and they start to move, do not think for a moment that they are going to pass you by if you happen to be in the path. I saw this happen frequently. The cops are ordered to clear the street, not clear the street of ‘activists’ or ‘striking students,’ but to clear the street of anyone who happens to be there and if you happen to live on that street and you’re halfway down the street with your groceries, that’s just tough shit.

            When People’s Park took place in Berkeley in April of 1969, it wasn’t the beginning of anything. It was the climax of many things that had been happening for the past couple of years. A lot of local people participated in landscaping that empty lot Between Haste and Dwight. UC had left it a trash-filled mud hole and had not kept it up. In a few days, it was cleaned up by hundreds of people, many of them neighbors who lived along the street, then UC sneaked in the early hours of the morning around May 15, put up a cyclone fence and had the place guarded by Alameda County Tac Squad cops. When people who lived around the park protested their presence, the cops laughed at them as they pulled up their trees and stomped on their flower beds. This type of insensitive, anti-community, asshole behavior triggered one of Berkeley largest riots as thousands of students and local people attacked and tore down the fence to reclaim the park and get some satisfaction. It was short-lived, because you can’t fight fire with gasoline. Madigan armed his cops with shotguns and they started shooting people. Well over a hundred people were treated at Highland and other local hospitals for shotgun pellet wounds and one man, James Rector, a carpenter from San Jose, was killed when he was gut shot by a passing deputy. It was the Viet Nam war come home. Reagan was willing to destroy Berkeley in order to save it. He had a couple of divisions of paratroopers on standby down at Fort Ord. Since he had never cancelled the State of Emergency declared early in the year, he could send in the National Guard or request Federal Troops anytime he wished. The army drove up and down Durant and Dana and Haste and Bowditch and other Berkeley streets spraying pepper fog at us! A helicopter teargassed students having lunch on the Terrace of the Commons, then did a sweep of Strawberry Canyon dumping the rest of the load on people swimming and playing tennis in the area. On its run, the helicopter made sure to get the kids playing the yard at Willard School. The next day I read in one of the straight papers, probably the CHRONICLE, that police were reacting to having rocks and bottles thrown at them when they started firing rock salt from their shotguns. I always had to smile at that ‘objective’ reporting. When those cops ran out of birdshot, they were issued .00 buckshot.

            Back at SSC, I had to teach a class. It was relaxing to be in rural Sonoma after the chaos of Berkeley in those days. I was chased down streets, teargassed in the doorway of Kip’s, threatened, intimidated, you name it. The police would rush into an area, get out a bullhorn, declare a gathering illegal,  tell people they had five minutes to disperse, then, before they had a chance to react, they waded in with billy clubs swinging. There was a gathering in a Bank of America parking lot down on center and the police surrounded it and arrested over 400 people. Put them on the busses and drove them out to Santa Rita for processing. Many of these ‘dangerous radicals,’  were just local citizens who wandered over after cashing a pay check, curious to see what a bunch of people were doing in the parking lot. They all have arrest records now. Welcome to Berkeley.

            Back at SSC. Stroll out to the island. Pass the time with some of my students. Take a hit off a joint. Hear about the latest high. Stroll back to the Commons. Get some junk food to eat. Watch the Krishna’s dancing around. They were everywhere in those days. Leaving UC campus, I often ran into Holy Hubert, a freckled, self-appointed evangelist, as he took on the Kirshnas. They’d be sitting on a prayer rug feeding lunch to some potential converts and Hubert would say, “wearing an orange sheet and eatin’ rice won’t get you into the Kingdom of Heaven, boys.” Those were the days of Tommy Roberts, the puppeteer. He did his puppet show while Ludwig splashed around in his fountain, chasing soap bubbles. Someone was always dumping a bottle of soap into that fountain during the psychedelic days. And back at SSC, people were talking about the upcoming Peace Festival. I was there. It was a monster festival with a couple dozen bands. I remember painter Andrew Annenberg, who did miniatures at the Renaissance Fairs, smiling up at me as he told me he had just shoved 250 mikes of pure acid up his ass. I saw people passing around bottles of fruit juice or Kool-aid. That was the in-joke of the time, because people were always talking about the Kool-aid at any party being spiked with acid. Fact is, it took a lot of acid to spike a pitcher, and tossing in a sugar cube certainly wouldn’t do it, too diluted to get anyone high. The Kool-aid jokes disappeared after Jim Jones used it to kill all his people down in Guyana.

            I was always in conflict as a teacher at SSC, because I could see that my students, most of whom were about eighteen-years-old, were having the time of their lives getting high and listening to music, dancing and partying, but I could also see that they weren’t getting a lot out of the education their parents were paying for. They weren’t doing the work, reading the books, and were not really preparing themselves for any kind of work in the real world. Where would they be when the acid dried up and they had to look at it all with sober eyes? I had students who really wanted to drop out of the academic game and when I talked to them I told them they had other choices. If they weren’t motivated to study for degrees, they should follow some personal interest. You really don’t know what you want to do when you’re an adolescent. That’s the problem. I could not prescribe for them. I could share experience, but they would have to find their own path. Today, many students are graduating in fields where there are no jobs, finding when they finish that long trek through academe that the college lied to them. The Bay Area is filled with people with advanced degrees who are working in bookstores and restaurants.

            By 1969, the student revolt against the materialism and unethical or amoral mindset of capitalism was in full force. Many children of the leisure class rejected their parents’ lifestyle and lived communally. The war in Viet Nam was a major factor. The kids knew their parents had war-related stock in their portfolios, that they were profiting on the deaths of people in a faraway country, and they rejected this kind of profiteering. They saw the horror on television in those days, the carpet bombing, the napalm burning trees and villages, the dying young soldiers being picked up and dragged into helicopters; there wasn’t the government censorship that now exists. Today a massacre of civilians like ‘Desert Storm’ is covered up by censorship of all video footage and one has to wait for General Ramsey Clark’s THE FIRE THIS TIME to find out the truth. Future capitalist wars will seem even more like video games as technology continues to diminish the value of human life. In ‘69, student activists were not buying the propaganda of the military-industrial complex. Stories about Viet Cong atrocities were rejected because the Vietnamese were defending their country against an outside invader--the U. S. military which had a policy of destroying entire villages rather than search for the ‘Cong’ hiding in them.

            In ‘69, people were talking about ‘the Movement’ or ‘the Revolution’ and many of the young had talked themselves into believing they could somehow turn the juggernaut of monopoly capitalism back toward humanitarian goals, but the hawk was armed to the teeth and had the court system. Students were beaten and arrested whenever they tried to take concrete action, then charges were filed against them for ‘resisting arrest’ or ‘assaulting a police officer [see Mike Parenti’s account of his phony arrest in DIRTY TRICKS, City Lights, 1996].’ The ‘leaders’ were always convicted, while many others were just arrested for harassment purposes and let go a short while later.

            Many teachers and administrators in the colleges tried to be ostriches, to carry on as though the campus was still a privileged area, sacrosanct and apolitical, a pretty difficult posture to maintain when there were cops beating up students right outside the classroom windows. Armed with the techniques of the Civil Rights Movement, the student movement was not passive. During the FSM at UC in ‘64, picketing students ran into classrooms and up and down the aisles of the lecture halls as they shouted, “On strike, shut it down!” By ‘69, the shouts were accompanied by smashed windows and overturned garbage cans as well as an occasional fire or bomb threat. I remember seeing John Edwards, probably the most conservative English teacher I had during my graduate year at San Francisco State, fighting hand to hand with a Chicano student during one of the stormiest clashes of that year. Edwards took a couple of good ones to the head and he was bloodied up, but he was fighting for what he believed in. So was the student, I’m sure, but I doubt that Edwards could have faced that. I remember him standing stiffly in front of the class during a lecture on Cotton Mather or one of the other English ministers. “My name is John Edwards. I’m a Professor. I profess.”

Ah, yes, but what do you profess? And what does it mean to profess it? What does it mean to possess a body of knowledge that no one seems to want?

            That was the problem I faced at SSC. If I had found even a few students who cared about literature and made me feel it was worth the effort I might have gone on teaching but I didn’t find them. I couldn’t compete with what was going on outside the classroom and after awhile I didn’t even want to try. I was totally uninterested in academic writing and had not written anything in my field for several years. There wasn’t any satisfaction there. The quarterlies have a five or six year backlog and I like to see my stuff in print the next day. I was born to be a daily reporter. On all the faculties I worked [four], I heard the same kind of rap among the teachers. They were always working on a book of poetry, or a book about Faulkner or Joyce, or a book of critical essays, one which would be very much like all the others on the subject, and my unspoken reaction would be what for?   I don’t think it’s ever been my goal to add a book to the shelf of books about this or that writer.

            I did enjoy teaching for awhile. With the right mix of students, it’s quite satisfying, but to go on year after year and end up a dean or something, well, it wasn’t me. I learned to dislike the American system of education. I hated having to teach people who didn’t want to be in my classes. In a state college, there are ‘required courses’ and ‘electives.’ When you’re low on the totem pole, you teach mostly required courses, which means the students are there because they have to be, not because they want to be, and you suffer accordingly, because, if you really love your field, you can’t help but feel you are casting your pearls before swine. Students in an elective course are there because they want to learn what you know. They have chosen to spend the semester studying with you. This can be satisfying if the mix is right, but it can also be miserable. There is no guarantee you will like the people who decide to pursue your favorite subject. Lay people should understand this. You enjoy a book and you want to share it with your best friend, but what happens when the friend hates the book? You are likely to have second thoughts about your relationship with that friend. This problem is multiplied for a teacher. When I finished up at SSC, I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore. I wanted to go where I wanted to go when I wanted to go and to associate with people I wanted to be around, not the students who were assigned to sit and listen to me for a semester at a time.

            When I sat around the Commons at SSC watching people pass joints around on the island, I often thought, things are really too slow around here. I’ve got to get back to the City, then I would be in some chaotic mêlée at San Francisco State or trapped in a phone booth on the UC campus telling a story to Jack Burgess at the FREEP and I would think, things are just too hectic around here, I’ve got to get back to Cotati where I can sit on Vito’s porch and rest. It was a yoyo lifestyle for several years there, but I was never bored.



THE VIOLENCE OF CHILDHOOD by Clay Geerdes

 

I walked out of the two storey white frame house on North 49th Street in Lincoln. On the front sidewalk I looked up and down the street. A redheaded boy was walking toward me. He was the first kid I had seen around my age and I was ready to be friendly. Maybe he would tell me something about my new neighborhood. Instead he hit me in the face with his fist. I put my hand up to catch the blood that was running from my nose as the kid ran off down the block laughing. My mother came to the front door as I was walking slowly toward the house.

            What happened to you?

            Some kid just hit me.

            What did you do?

            Nothin’! I was just standin’ on the sidewalk.

            Well, you must have done something. Look at your shirt. Come on in the kitchen and take it off. I’ll have to wash it out.

            We went through the living room and into the kitchen and she pulled me roughly over to the sink. She washed my face and told me to hold a cold washrag under my nose. My little brother was standing in the door of the back bedroom rubbing his eyes. The baby was asleep.

            What am I gonna do with you? We’ve only lived in this house for three days and already you’ve got yourself in trouble with one of the neighbor kids.

I didn’t do anything. I was just standing there.

            Oh, just shut up, and don’t let that blood drip on my clean floor. I’ve got to get dinner started before your dad gets home. You can tell the whole story to him.

 

            Wesley stood at the top of the stairs leading to the front doors of the ugly brick school building. He was about to step down when Eldon eased up behind him, put his hand between his shoulder blades, and gave him a hard push. Wesley lost his footing. He rolled and bumped his way on the hard wood stairs, banging his lip against his rabbity front teeth as he reached bottom. He looked up, blood running down his chin, and saw Mrs. Spicknall watching him from the top of the stairs. She walked down toward him, her ugly green dress swaying slightly as she moved from step to step. The thick lenses of her glasses caught the light from the doorway and he couldn’t see her eyes as she asked him what happened.

            Someone pushed me down the stairs.

            Who was it?

            I didn’t see him.

            Well, we’ll look into this, Wesley. Right now you go with me to the nurse’s office and we’ll have her take a look at you.

            All right.

 

            At recess a teacher usually stood in the doorway of the ‘Little boys’ room,’ but there were times when she was distracted by something happening in the hallway, and it was during those lapses that the jokers made their plays. Dean Crewdson thought it was funny as hell to sneak up behind a kid standing at a urinal, grab his balls, and yell, “grab for your brains!”

           

            John Rogers crossed the gravel playground and just as he turned into Cleveland Street three boys attacked him from behind. The first boy pushed his books out of his arms, a second tackled him to the sidewalk, and the third jumped on his back, grabbed his hair, and started banging his face against the cement. The first boy kicked Rogers’ notebook and stomped on his school books, then he kicked the trapped boy between his legs and called him a ‘fuckin’ queer. John didn’t know what that meant. He was just a shy new kid who never spoke to anyone.

            Rogers, you homo. You tell anyone about this and the next time we’ll depants you and throw you in Mayo’s soda fountain.

            Rogers didn’t know that Mayo’s was a drugstore down on 48th Street that had a marble top soda fountain where kids could get cherry phosphates or banana splits. He hadn’t walked down to University Place yet. After his attackers ran off, he lay still for a long time. No one came out of any of the nearby houses to help him. He sat up, got to his feet, and began to survey the damage to his body. He ached all over. His forehead and nose and cheeks were scraped and he was bleeding slightly from one cheek but he didn’t see all of that until he got home and looked in the bathroom mirror. He took a few steps, then remembered his books. He cried when he saw that the boys had torn up his notebook. Money was scarce at his house and he would have a hard time getting another one. He gathered up his books and walked slowly home in the afternoon sunshine.

 

Huntington School was filled with white working class kids, most of them third generation immigrants like me. Meanness and violence was the norm and kids received little sympathy from their parents when they were victims. Which was every day. In line to go in from recess, boys would play the circle game. One made a circle with his thumb and forefinger, then tapped another boy on the shoulder and when he looked down at the circle that gave the boy with the circle the right to hit him hard on the bicep. This went on every day and the boys, particularly the smaller, weaker ones, had sore arms all the time. The bigger boys would ban together and prey on the weak. One of their favorite stunts was to split up and attack. One would sneak up behind a boy, kneel down, and wait for the other two to push the boy over his back into the gravel. Tripping explained why most of the smaller kids were always watching their feet when they walked. The school was segregated by gender. Boys played in one area, girls in another, and the boys thought it was great fun to trap a smaller boy, take his pants off, and throw him onto the girls’ playground. It was wartime and some of the boys had older brothers who were in the Army fighting against the Germans and Japanese. The older ones often wrote and told the younger about the fighting techniques they had learned. Judo was very popular among the younger brothers and it was routine for someone to sneak up and put a Judo hold on someone else. Always someone smaller. I learned very quickly not to shake hands with anyone, because that was the prelude to getting flipped over someone’s shoulder into the gravel.

            A lot of the violence was caused by teachers. At recess one day, we were playing a game of soccer. I was near the goal line when the ball went out and I said the ball was out. The kids on the other team, of course, said it was in. So they were yelling it was in and I was yelling it was out. The teacher had not been close enough to see that the ball went across outside the line, but her way of dealing with the argument was to cancel recess and make us all line up and go inside early. Naturally, this pissed everyone off, and they took it out on me because I had argued the ball was out.

            We’ll get you after school, Geerdes.

            Yeah, we’ll be waiting for you.

            I spent the rest of the afternoon apprehensive, because I knew I would have to hit the front steps on the run or take a beating from those clods. I knew there wasn’t going to be any kindly teacher standing on the steps watching until I was safely down the block. My teachers were great at making me stay after school for ‘talking out,’ but they were lousy at protecting me from the violence of the bigger boys. Well, I figured if I talked out and raised a little hell in class, I would have to stay in that afternoon and the boys who were laying for me would get bored and go on home. It worked. I had to sit around the classroom and writing something meaningless on the blackboard for half an hour, but when I went out the front door there was no one around to jump me. I knew there wouldn’t be. All the boys hurried home after school to get in a game of vacant lot baseball before their mothers called them in to eat supper.

            Whenever I went home bloody after a day at school, I got my dad’s lecture on fighting back and taking care of myself. My mother, who had to clean me up and wash out the blood, was never very sympathetic. I learned early that I couldn’t talk to her about any of the problems at school and my dad didn’t want to hear about them either so I had no one to talk to. I never understood the boys at school, and I made no friends among them. They were brutal and on the edge of violence. They were just carbon copies of their abusive parents, but I didn’t learn that until much later in life. They were the antithesis of me.  My mother raised me to have nice manners and not to fight or swear. I took pride in my wit and intelligence, in my artistic ability, not in bloodying some smaller boy’s nose or ripping up his homework. I survived the brutality and torture at Huntington by outthinking my enemies. I became friendly with several young girls and all my life my closest friendships have been with women, not men. I always had a problem with my mother, because she said I brought the violence on myself, that I had something to do with it, and that was never true.

            An older boy kidnapped me one afternoon. He held his air rifle on me and made me walk out into the middle of a vacant lot where he tried to get me to take my clothes off. I talked him out of it and he finally rode off on his bike, leaving me to walk home. When I got in the house I told my mother what had happened and she didn’t believe me. She knew the older boy who had kidnapped me and he was always polite to her so she thought he was a nice kid. He tried to assault me sexually once and I didn’t even tell her, because I knew it was a waste of words. It wasn’t that she didn’t love me, because she was often very good to me, treating me like a friend and companion, particularly after my father took sick with ALS; she just got the idea in her head that I made things up to dramatize or glamorize my life and she took the stories I told her with a grain of salt. Well, that blood was real and so were the stories related here. The sadistic bastard who assaulted me numerous times in my childhood was ultimately sent to prison for rape and I never saw him again after I quit high school but I never stopped hating him for what he did to me.

            I have to laugh at all this talk of television and violence and V-chips. What a lot of horseshit that is. There was no tv to trigger all that violence and brutality I experienced and witnessed at Huntington and Northeast High School in the forties. Most of the violent guys got it from their abusive drunken parents and passed it along. Snapping a wet towel at a shy kid’s ass or trying to drown him in the pool during ‘free swim’ was considered good fun by these sadists. So was pushing someone’s face down against the fountain while he was drinking. Many points for breaking a front tooth! Shoving a smaller kid’s head in the toilet and flushing it was good for a lot of laughs. Vandalism was their art form. They were always letting the air out of someone’s bicycle tires and standing around nearby to have a laugh when the kid hopped on to ride home. The storm troopers were easier to avoid in high school, but no less vicious. Most had been expelled, but hung out around the school to hit on the girls. Several had already gone to ‘reform school’ for burglary, rape, assault, and other crimes well advertised through the gangster movies of George Raft. There’s a joke. Most were ‘reformed’ to go on to the State Pen.

            In school, there are two pecking orders, one physical, the other intellectual. School favors the intellectuals, so the others have to fall back on violence for their status. I was always superior in my classes, always won the spelldowns, turned in the best essays, knew all the material in the readers, had my science projects completed before the others. And I was always punished for my intellect. I was the last chosen for most of the games at recess, not because I wasn’t good at baseball, because I was a pretty good hitter, but because I was the ‘bookworm’ and ‘smart ass.’ The only time I ever had status when I was at Huntington was when I got into a wrestling match with Duane Allman and made him say uncle. That day all the boys looked at me like I had done something significant.

            The most pleasant thing I felt the first week I was in college after getting out of the Navy was being able to walk leisurely down to the Commons for a session with a group of literary friends, knowing I no longer had to watch my back every step of the way. 

Website Builder